Songbirds by Christy Lefteri
Published by Ballantine Books
Publication date: August 3, 2021
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Cultural, Literary
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Sorry to start a review with a longwinded explanation, but…Songbirds was a new experience for me. I don’t remember ever starting a book and being so put off by the opening scene. Yiannis is a main character, living in Cyprus, a country that is in the direct migration path of millions of small, exotic birds. He’s a poacher, trapping them by the hundred in nets and then killing them. The method of killing is so visceral and distasteful I questioned whether I cared enough about this man’s life to keep reading. Thankfully, Yiannis’ job is only one small part of his life and of this poignant novel about the disappearance of a migrant woman, one of a shadowy army around the globe working for other families to support their own.
Petra’s husband dies shortly before the birth of their first child. She is swamped in her grief, so through an agency she hires a woman to be live-in help. Nisha is from Sri Lanka, with a young daughter of her own and an elderly mother to support back home. She comes to Cyprus hoping for a better paying job. Despite the difficulty in being separated from her own child for nine years, Nisha pours her love into Aliki, Petra’s daughter. She cares for and nurtures both mother and daughter. The trio live quietly with a boarder on the top floor of the house. The boarder is Yiannis and he and Nisha have fallen in love. Then she disappears.
When Petra pursues the normal missing persons avenues, she brushed off by the hiring company and the police. Even though she stole nothing and left without her passport or wallet she’s written off as another worthless, untrustworthy immigrant. As Petra searches, talking to the neighbors’ maids, Yiannis, anyone who came in contact with Nisha regularly, her eyes are opened to the cruelty of the system she herself perpetuates. Not only does no one care about what may have happened to Nisha, Songbirds exposes to an underworld where women like her are disposable, cheap commodities to use up and toss away. In nine years, Petra has never given thought to Nisha as a woman, has given her no time off to visit her own daughter, and has been clear that a personal relationship is unacceptable. Now, she is left with her own guilt over Nisha’s possible fate.
Author Christy Lefteri draws a solid line between the masses of small songbirds that fly through Cyprus and are never missed when they disappear to women like Nisha. Actually, the reality is that more attention is paid to the plight of birds than to that of an entire subculture of foreign women illegally imported into countries (The novel is based on a true case in Cyprus). But while Nisha is at the book’s center Lefteri also brings to life all the characters under her care, making each more than a label. Everyone has a story in Songbirds and while most are suffused with a melancholy darkness there is also tenderness and strength, making for poignant reading.
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*I received a free copy of this book from Ballantine Books in exchange for an honest review.*