Songbirds by Christy Lefteri
Review by Halimah Haque
Loosely based on the real-life disappearances of domestic workers in Cyprus, Songbirds follows the story of Nisha, a Sri Lankan nanny who was forced to leave her daughter and native land behind in order to find work in Cyprus, when she suddenly disappears. With the police unwilling to look into her disappearance, Nisha’s secret lover Yiannis fears for her life while her employer Petra undertakes the investigation herself. As Petra unravels Nisha's last days in Cyprus, she is led to Nisha's friends – other maids in the neighbourhood – and to the dark reality of a migrant's life.
Similarly to her bestseller, The Beekeeper of Aleppo, Lefteri highlights key issues throughout the novel. Centred around domestic workers, she shines light on the negative treatment many experience living far away from their families and country as a means of supporting themselves. Like many domestic workers, Nisha is presented as someone that can be taken advantage of without any recourse because she’s in a country that is not her own.
With multiple side stories, the reader meets Nisha through the voice of Yiannis, a poacher who traps the protected songbirds that stop in Cyprus and Petra, who despite having employed Nisha for nearly a decade knows little about her. Although Nisha becomes an integral part of her employer’s life over the years, it is only after her disappearance that Petra begins to understand her worth. It was interesting to see this dynamic between an employer and servant’s relationship, which reflects the tragic experiences many refugees, migrants and displaced people encounter in reality.
I loved everything about this novel: the vivid descriptions of nature; the beautiful writing and raw characters, which made it a joy to read – despite the heart-breaking and difficult themes that are explored. Although it took me a while to warm up to Yiannis – due to his profession – I really liked both his and Petra’s characters. Both had flaws, but that’s what made them realistic. Meeting Nisha solely through their eyes was intriguing, and I really loved how Lefteri depicted this in a fascinating yet sensitive manner.
Most of all, I adored the symbolism and connection between the trapped songbirds and the lives of the domestic workers. It made it all the more heart-breaking.
Songbirds is a heart-wrenching tale of loss, hope and love – the love between Nisha and Yiannis, but most importantly the love between a mother and child.
Don't Laugh, It'll Only Encourage Her by Daisy May Cooper
Review by Jenna Tomlinson
Daisy May Cooper has the sort of deadpan delivery and unrestrained laughter reminiscent of sharing embarrassing stories with friends. It's what makes her memoir, Don't Laugh, It'll Only Encourage Her, so inviting. Cooper recounts the formative years and events of her childhood, adolescent years and life before fame, all the while embracing a sarcastic and matter-of-fact tone that only adds to the humour.
Cooper is excellent at drawing out a key image or quirk of family members, friends and those she meets along the way. There's her mother's penchant for collecting injured animals, filling their rented house that specifically states “no pets” in the lease with dogs, cats and birds amongst others. Then there's her dad – an archetypal 70s/80s dad, who works as a travelling salesman. At one point, she describes a producer she attended an audition for – Thaddeus, who has a habit of swearing as a form of punctuation.
As if the comedy of the people she meets isn't enough, some of Cooper's memories are equally hilarious. For example, the time she auditioned for an advert of “exotic dancers,” believing she would be some type of local Carmen Miranda. Or the time she arranged for a boy she had been chatting to online to visit her and stay at her house, telling her parents he was part of a school exchange programme but forgetting to tell the boy in question her plan.
Cooper's life hasn't always been laughs and comedy, but she somehow manages to make even the most desperate accounts light-hearted and witty. She shares her family's struggles with money and the crushing effect of shouldering the burden of this as she went to auditions and call-backs. She regales us with a story of auditioning for and attending RADA but not quite fitting in (including performing a STEPS song as an emotional monologue during a class where the Stanislavski method was enforced).
Growing up in Cirencester, Cooper knew she was interested in acting and characters from a young age, and it's her hometown that provided the basis for her and Charlie's hugely successful show This Country. In one chapter, she tells the reader about a cleaning job the two had, where they would create skits and characters whilst cleaning truly disgusting offices.
I'd highly recommend Cooper's memoir. I found myself laughing out loud for most of the book and when I listened to the audiobook, Cooper's infectious laughter and side notes about her inability to do accents just add to this.