THE BEEKEEPER OF ALEPPO
a novel by Christy Lefteri
2019, Paperback, 352 pages
Reviewed by Jennifer Goldenberg
The strength of Christy Lefteri’s novel lies in its specificity and her characters’ actions, words and quirks. Although it is fictionalized, Lefteri, the daughter of immigrants, got her details from personal experience working at a Syrain refugee camp in Greece.
The novel is based on the real life Syrian civil war and the plight of its citizens to leave their home and make the treacherous journey as far away as possible. War stories are notoriously difficult to read because of the subject matter, and Beekeeper is no different in that respect – there are plenty of disturbing incidents – but despite the intense emotional hardships and painful memories, the characters forge a stone soup kind of friendship with each other, contributing their own chunks and pieces of broken English vernacular and constructing a friendship simply by being in the same boat: they are all refugees and all are looking to escape their past, even though part of their painful past cleaves to them like a parasite. There are no flatliner characters here. It would be impossible for a reader to be bored with this book.
The story is narrated by Nuri, who is in a Greek refugee camp with his wife Afra. They lost their son, Sami, in a bombing in Syria and his death has a profound effect on both Nuri, who develops a kind of PTSD, in which he imagines a boy Sami’s age in the camp with him; and his artist wife Afra, who has become blinded – physically and emotionally – by her son’s death.
Lefteri uses color repeatedly to describe emotions: “the blue of her (Afra’s) dreams; her black world” and of her artwork: “the colors were wild: the tree blue, the sky red..lines were broken, yet it held a beauty that was mesmerizing.” Angeliki, a refugee whose baby was taken from her, whose breasts leak milk, has become friends with Afra, yet Angeliki herself is struggling with sanity, as her choppy English suggests:
“My breath it stop and it does not come back.
My breath it stop and they took it. Some people
they want to take your breath …they put some-
thing in my blood . They poison it and now my
mind is ill.”
There is plenty of symbolism in the novel and a satisfactory ending, but appreciating the book is more engaging if the reader can treat it like it is an abstract painting: in order to fully appreciate the work, the reader must be able to extract fragments of the human condition and slosh through the murky language of distress, and even hope.
Jennifer Goldenberg is a freelance writer who loves books.