The Beekeeper Of Aleppo

Christy Lefteri

Zaffre, £12.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

After covering thousands of miles against all the odds, few things can be more nerve-wracking than the wait to see whether you’ll be granted refugee status or put on a plane and sent back to the country you fled in fear of your life.

Having worked at a refugee centre in Athens (and being the daughter of a Cypriot refugee herself), Christy Lefteri is well aware that, by the time people reach the stage of preparing documentation for their case, they’ve been through such an ordeal that they barely know how much is left of the person they once were.

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Her narrator in this novel, Syrian refugee Nuri, is staying with his blind wife Afra in a B&B on the English south coast, alongside eight other hopeful applicants. Nuri and Afra made the long, tortuous journey via Istanbul and Athens after seeing their homeland descend into murderous chaos, and both are basically suffering from PTSD. Nuri realises that her husband isn’t well. Deep down, he knows that his encounters in the B&B’s back garden with the young boy who joined them on their journey are hallucinations. Deeper still, he understands that they’re trying to tell him something.

As they wait for the wheels of bureaucracy to turn, Nuri has little to do but reflect on, and relive, the events that brought them to this point. Before civil war broke out, he and his cousin Mustafa ran a beekeeping business together, producing ten tonnes of honey a year. In the subsequent hostilities, both Nuri and Mustafa lost their young sons, Afra being blinded by the same explosion that killed their little boy, Sami. Mustafa fled Syria in haste, after killing three men from a death squad, and made it as far as Yorkshire. Afra initially resisted fleeing, unable to bring herself to abandon the place where her son died.

Although they’ve crossed a continent together, a seemingly unbridgeable gulf has opened up between the couple, their attempts to reach each other continually missing the mark. Nuri thinks of Afra as “locked in” and unreachable, holding an unchanging picture in her head of how Syria used to be before war broke out. But Afra feels it’s Nuri who’s really lost in the darkness. Nuri understands that “she loves me and that she has been hoping for me to love her. But I am no longer worthy of her or her forgiveness.”

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Drawing on her experience in the field, Lefteri writes vividly and convincingly about the trials endured by refugees, particularly in the Athens parkland where Nuri and Afra spend weeks sleeping in the open air, wary of predatory young men and noises in the forest. Even for people with money, like them, the sense of living in limbo, unable to move forward or go back, eats away at the soul.

The Beekeeper of Aleppo is a relevant, timely book, but impresses most as a compassionate and truthful character study. It’s a remarkable account of the dislocation endured by displaced persons across the world, an important and necessary novel that humanises the dispossessed who are all too often demonised.