Reviewing Christy Lefteri's 'The Beekeeper of Aleppo'
'Most of the hives had crumbled completely but a few stood like skeletons with their numbers still visible...the colonies of grandmother, mother and daughter. Three generations of bees. But they were all gone now'
An international bestseller, The Beekeeper of Aleppo traces the lives of Nuri and Afra as they flee their home in Syria to seek asylum in the United Kingdom. The novel traverses between Aleppo, Nuri’s and Afra’s home before the Syrian Civil War, their dangerous journey across Europe, and their refuge in England.
The novel centers around key themes of loss, transformation, connection to others and immigration, offering a fictional consideration of the reality of the lives of thousands of refugees. Lefteri was inspired by her experiences working at a refugee centre in Athens, and brings to life the painful experiences of the people she worked with.
I loved the story line and how the pain of the character was cleverly crafted through the novel's structure; the chapter headings offer no indication of where or when we are being transported to, reflecting the spontaneity and impulsive nature of Nuri and Afra's decision to leave Syria.
'I didn't tell her about the children on the streets. I didn't want her to see them in her mind's eye, to become trapped with them in the inescapable tunnels of her mind.'
Lefteri succeeds in conveying how fractured Syria as a country is and the consequence of this on its people. She opens your eyes to a world outside of your own, offering a much richer perceptive on other people’s lives that news coverage simply cannot give. Lefteri offers a fresh perspective of immigration, which subsequently has a different emotional impact to that of the media's portrayal of it. The novel puts into perspective the experience of leaving your home country and travelling towars another life haunted by uncertainty, a decision that shatters your life as you once knew it.
One element of the novel I found particularly heartbreaking is how Afra initially refuses to leave her home, despite Nuri's warnings that they are in severe danger the longer they stay. Lefteri is successful in displaying the sense of belonging that Afra associates with her home, regardless of how it is gradually being torn apart by war. I can only imagine how it must feel to leave your home and never return.
The characterisation of the novel is incredibly vivid and rich. There are key moments when we see the characters shift roles; Nuri is at once strong and dependent, whilst Afra is vulnerable and weak, yet this initial impression is reversed towards the end of the novel. It was also interesting to see how the characters face the same obstacles, and how they react to the events that unfold. Afra is blind, but it becomes clear that she is more aware of her surroundings than her husband, and Nuri himself is blind to the internal issues he is facing.
'It was my job to protect the bees, to keep them healthy and strong, while they fulfilled their task of making honey and pollinating the land to keep us alive.'
In my opinion, beekeeping represents solidarity, comfort and independence, whilst the bees are free yet united. These images symbolise strength and passion, but they also highlight the fragility of the world and how nothing is permanent. They are vulnerable, just like humanity. The image of the broken beehives and dispersed bee colonies reflects the fragmentation of the lives of Nuri, Afra and their families.
'People are not like bees. We do not work together, we have no sense of a greater good.'
There are moment of exquisite beauty in this novel, and so many moments resonate with my emotions. However, despite the story itself having so much potential, I am not ultimately convinced the execution of the novel did the story justice. I was left wanting more, not from the story itself, but the writing and the presentation. The impact of war and brutality is indirectly explored within the novel on a character level, but I would have liked this to drift into a more literal painting so we could see what happened within the lives of Nuri and Afra that forced them to flee. Having read similar stories before, I cannot with confidence say I prefer this over anything else.
Nonetheless, the novel is deeply affecting and moving, and I found it incredibly eye opening.