Review: The Beekeeper of Aleppo

Christy Lefteri volunteered in a refugee camp in Athens where she witnessed hundreds of people struggling to reach safety overseas. Her memories, and her experience as the daughter of Cypriat refugees, inspired The Beekeeper of Aleppo, her second novel published in 2019.  

What’s it about?

Nuri is a beekeeper who lives with his wife, Afra, in the city of Aleppo in Syria. When their home is all but destroyed, and they have suffered unimaginable loss, Nuri and Afra are forced to flee Aleppo, taking a treacherous journey through Europe, towards the UK where Nuri’s cousin Mustafa awaits them. Blinded by grief and shock, Afra is reluctantly led by her husband across Turkey and Greece, in the desperate hope that safety is within reach.

My thoughts

This is a moving and evocative novel about war, loss and asylum. For years, we will remember the images and news articles about the thousands of people struggling to escape the Syrian war. Christy Lefteri goes beyond the statistics and headlines to represent an individual story of survival. 

As you can imagine, much of the novel focuses on the refugee camp in Greece where Nuri and Afra stay, waiting for a passage to England. The people they meet here are equally displaced and adrift, uncertain of their next movements. Over the course of the book, Nuri and Afra become increasingly dependent on dangerous individuals to carry them forwards. The risks, mistakes and chances they take speak of disenfranchisement, disempowerment and gradually fading hope. 

The mental and emotional journey is almost as central as this story as the physical. Much time and thought is given to the effect that trauma has on the couple (both as individuals and as husband and wife) – from blindness and silence, to hallucination and disembodiment, they are forever changed by the war.   

At its heart, this novel wants its readers to remember the people who would give anything and risk everything to find peace. In an interview about the book, Lefteri said 

“We’re living in difficult times, and there is a lot of division and fear-mongering, especially in the UK. I remember before I went to Athens to volunteer, it was all over the news. Now it’s nowhere. Where is all that gone? It still exists, those people have still been displaced, they’re still trying to settle, they’re still traumatised. Where is everything now?”

Summary

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a story, told with compassion, that aims to ignite empathy and deeper understanding in the reader. There are violent moments that feel specifically designed to illicit shock and alarm and yet these episodes of horror lack development and, as a result, felt slightly gratuitous. The author alludes to a violating act against Afra’s body, but rather than exploring or addressing its effect on her character, it is presumed to be another trauma she must silently absorb. Ordinarily, I bristle when authors orchestrate plot points intended specifically to make you weep, gasp or recoil. However, this is based on Lefteri’s own eyewitness accounts and, I imagine, the horrifying events that take place throughout the novel speak to the truth of many refugees’ experiences. Lefteri amalgamates, dramatises and retells stories from real people – and that is a powerful feat for any novelist. 

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