“Where there are bees there are flowers, and wherever there are flowers there is new life and hope.”– Christy Lefteri, “The Beekeeper of Aleppo”
Trigger Warnings: PTSD, flashbacks, death of a child, violence, allusion to rape
I won a copy of The Beekeeper of Aleppo in a Goodreads giveaway last year, but with the grief of 2020 fresh in my mind, I couldn’t bring myself to start it. This year, I decided to use it for Prompt 12 of the 52 Book Club Challenge: Set on at Least Two Continents. Before I ever started reading, I knew this book would be sad. Given its focus on the destruction of Syria and the refugee crisis, how could it be anything less? But “sad” doesn’t even begin to describe the depths to which this book can plunge. Profound loss sits at the center of this book. Nuri, our narrator, and his blinded wife, Afra, have left Syria after the death of their young son, Sami. The book traces their journey from Syria through refugee camps to Athens and finally to England, where Nuri’s cousin hopefully awaits.
There are three main points on the winding timeline of this book. The book begins in the middle of the journey where Nuri and Afra are slowly, painstakingly making their way to the safety and security of England. There are several stops along this journey and through Nuri’s eyes, we meet many people along the way, including the young boy Mohammed, who reminds Nuri of his own son. We have the before, where Nuri remembers his life in Syria as a beekeeper, before Daesh (ISIS) destroyed his city. He lived on a hill that overlooked the city of Aleppo and often worked with his cousin, Mustafa, who was more like a brother than a cousin. He and Afra had a young and inquisitive son, Sami. Life was full of hard work, but it was also full of joy and love. Sprinkled in with both of the other parts of this narrative comes glimpses of the after, where we know that Nuri and Afra have indeed made it to their destination.
Early in the novel Nuri finds a wingless bumblebee stuck in a concrete courtyard. He cares for it as best he can, but knows that in its deformed state, it will not live for long. The bee symbolizes Nuri and Afra’s grief and its physical manifestations. For Nuri these are debilitating flashbacks that leave him often awaking in strange places. For Afra, her pain manifests in blindness after the bomb that took her son’s life. The last thing she saw was the light leaving her son’s eyes. How could she ever look at anything else again, knowing she would never again see her son? With some carefully arranged flowers and a safe enclosure, the bee learns to adapt to its disability and its new home. Is the same possible for Nuri and Afra?
This book took me by the throat and punched me in the gut. It was difficult to read such immense and overwhelming grief, especially when the grief was both roaring and muted. Nuri and Afra are each lost in their grief and thus are lost to one another. This is where the broken timeline helps to keep infusing life and hope into a situation that seems so devoid of both. Lefteri ingeniously weaves the threads of the story together to provide just enough light that we are not completely lost in the darkness of Nuri and Afra’s new world.
It’s hard to read books about refugee experiences, about their journeys from their beloved homes, about their loss that is so often beyond human words. Still, we should not turn away from these stories. For thousands they are the truth. And for thousands more they are the story that unfortunately never came, that got cut short by bullet or bomb. The author wrote this novel after experience working with refugees in Athens, and it is evident that those she encountered had a lasting impact on her heart and her life. So often we focus on the legality of immigration and do not stop to think of the anguish of those who are forced to leave their homes or die in them. Like the wingless bee, so many refugees depend upon the kindness and help of strangers for survival and for the hope of a future, for the greater good of us all.
“People are not like bees. We do not work together, we have no real sense of a greater good –”– Christy Lefteri, “The Beekeeper of Aleppo”
- Emotive and expressive writing
- Heartbreaking and realistic without being oppressively dark
- Past and present woven together brilliantly through use of flashback and dream sequences – creates a depth of character rarely achieved
- Back and forth timeline without clear breaks can be confusing to read. Go slowly.
- Various dream sequences within all three parts of the timeline can also add to the confusion.
“Inside the person you know, there is a person you do not know.”– Christy Lefteri, “The Beekeeper of Aleppo”
- Those interested in learning more about the ongoing Syrian conflict and refugee crisis
- Those wanting a thought provoking read who don’t mind a gut punch
Books to Read If You Loved The Beekeeper of Aleppo:
- A Land of Permanent Goodbyes by Atia Abawi
- A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
- No Turning Back by Rania Abouzeid
- Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Let’s Discuss! (Pick a question and drop a comment with your reply!)
- How dangerous does a situation have to become for people to risk their lives and their children’s lives at a chance to escape, knowing that poverty, grief, and hardship await them if they are “lucky” enough to get out alive?
- How do we begin to recover from profound loss?
- How do we offer hope to those “locked in” with their grief?
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