Nisha has crossed oceans to give her child a future. By day she cares for Petra’s daughter; at night she mothers her own little girl by the light of a phone. Nisha’s lover, Yiannis, is a poacher, hunting the tiny songbirds on their way to Africa each winter. His dreams of a new life, and of marrying Nisha, are shattered when she vanishes. No one cares about the disappearance of a domestic worker, except Petra and Yiannis. As they set out to search for her, they realise how little they know about Nisha. What they uncover will change them all.
This moving and deeply disturbing story is told through the alternating voices of Petra and Yiannis as they attempt to uncover the mystery behind Nisha’s sudden, mysterious disappearance. As the story begins it’s clear that both are shocked and upset by it but initially their motivations for trying to find her felt very different. Whilst Yiannis’s sprang from his deeply-felt emotional attachment to his lover, Petra’s appeared to be rooted in feeling inconvenienced because she was used to relying on Nisha to care for Aliki, her nine year old daughter, and to keep the house running smoothly whilst Petra worked full time. It quickly became clear that she knew very little about Nisha’s personal life and it was only after she had gone missing that, through the eyes of Aliki, who was feeling bereft by her the disappearance of her beloved nanny, Petra began to fully ‘see’ her. Consequently, to begin with I found it almost impossible to feel other than critical of her, not only because it was clear that she had never developed a strong maternal bond with her own daughter, but because her self-absorption meant she had no idea that Yiannis and Nisha had become lovers, even though he was a tenant in an apartment in her house. However, the gradual revelations about her own history enabled me to make sense of her lack of emotional engagement and, as she began to gain insight and recognise her previous lack of empathy with Nisha, I found myself becoming more forgiving!
Through Nisha the author explored some of the realities of economic migration and the personal sacrifices made by people who feel forced to leave loved ones behind in order to better provide for them. In order to escape extreme poverty in Sri Lanka, widowed Nisha had left her two year old daughter Kumari with her own mother and, through an agency, had been placed with heavily pregnant, newly widowed Petra. When the story begins she has been living in Nicosia for nine years, lovingly devoting herself to Aliki and Petra during her long working days whilst, through nightly contact via her phone or Yiannis’s i-Pad, maintaining a loving, parental relationship with her own daughter Although able to send some money home, she knows she has no hope of returning to her daughter until she’s repaid the €10,000 fee the agency charged to place her.
Yiannis’s story was also one of being caught in a cycle of debt. He’d had a successful career as a banker until the 2008 financial crash led to him losing his job, all his savings, his house and his wife. He turned to foraging for wild foods which he then sold to restaurants. However, that barely paid his bills and he became involved in a highly lucrative poaching ring, illegally trapping thousands of tiny songbirds as they followed their migration routes. As gourmet delicacies these birds attracted a high price on the black market so his financial situation began to improve. However, when the personal cost becomes too great and he tries to break free of the criminal ring, he discovers he is as trapped as the birds he poaches. His descriptions of the methods he and his fellow poachers used to trap the birds were disturbingly graphic, to such an extent that there were moments when I could hardly bear to continue reading about this level of cruelty and blatant disregard for sentient creatures.
Christy Lefteri’s inspiration for this novel had its roots in a real life case in Cyprus, where five foreign domestic workers and two children had gone missing. When the women were reported missing, because they were foreign, the police did nothing to investigate their disappearance, the assumption being that they had simply moved on. However, it was later discovered that all had been murdered. The author says she ‘felt so saddened by the inhumanity and injustice of this. I felt compelled to shine a light on this situation and the deeply rooted institutionalised racism that prevented the police from launching a search party.’ I think she has succeeded in her aim because she has reminded me of how shocked and angry I felt in 2019 as I followed the unfolding story in the newspapers. Although her novel isn’t directly about that real-life case, reading it not only reignited those original feelings of outrage but has made me think much more deeply about the attitudes and practices which enable such casual disregard for our fellow human beings, just as it reminded me of the disgust I feel about the abhorrent practice of netting migratory birds.
Christy Lefteri’s rather lyrical narrative style and her highly evocative descriptions of the flora, fauna and landscape of Cyprus, could have belied the dark seriousness of the subject matter. However, this was far from the case because I truly can’t recall ever having read a novel which has kept me in an almost perpetual state of anger, outrage and disgust at the injustices being described. As these feelings had already been triggered by the end of page three, it’s clear that the author has an admirable capacity for making her words pack a powerful punch. Not only did she create convincing main characters to convey her impassioned themes, but her portrayals of the more minor ones were equally impressive. It is through the eyes of each of these characters that the reader gradually gets to ‘see’ Nisha but it isn’t until the final couple of pages of the story that she’s given her own voice. Although this could have felt frustrating, I think it was a masterly decision on the part of the author because it’s Nisha’s words which pull so many of the story’s thought-provoking themes together. Although so many of these are disturbing, frequently making the story feel hauntingly sad, it is also a story of forgiveness, redemption and the power of love. It would make an excellent choice for reading groups.
With thanks to the publisher and Readers First for a copy in exchange for an honest review.
Review by Linda Hepworth
Manilla Press (Imprint of Bonnier Books UK) 8th July 2021
ISBN: 978-1-83877-376-2 Hardback