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The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby - Review

Thursday, February 14, 2019

I read this book for my book club, I'm not sure I'd have ever chosen it myself but I'm really glad I read it. I'm looking forward to discussing it with my book club next week! Trigger warnings for death if you're going to read it. Be careful with my review, too.

It's about an optician on the small Italian island of Lampedusa, which is between Sicily and Tunisia. The optician is never named, which for me adds an element of everyman about him - he's just a man who happens to be in a place at a time that he may not otherwise have been, and so may we be at some time. The optician, at the beginning of the novel, is lamenting the turn of the season in Lampedusa, meaning people are leaving for the Italian mainland and business is on the downturn. The optician and several friends are about to go out for the last time on the yacht belonging to one of them. The optician thinks about what could have happened that meant they didn't go - like a chance in the weather.

But they do go. On the second morning, the optician is lying in bed savouring the tranquillity. He goes up on deck and hears a noise that he at first takes for seagulls. Then he and the others realises that they are people screaming. They take the boat over and find people drowning in the sea.

They are migrants, coming on a boat from Africa to Europe. The boat has sunk and there are corpses everywhere. There are people still alive, too, though, screaming for help. The optician and his friends start to pull people out, scarcely able to believe what they are seeing. They pull people aboard a boat meant for ten, eventually saving 47 people. The boat is low in the water by the time they return to Lampedusa, told to leave by the Coastguard.

The migrants are taken to a centre on the island and the optician and his friends are left to deal with the trauma of what has occurred - and the knowledge that 350 more people have died, unable to be saved.

If the optician ever thought of migrants before, it was only in theoretical terms. Now he can't stop thinking about them - about the young man in the vermillion t-shirt, about the young woman found still attached to her newborn baby, about the outstretched arms of all those desperate to find sanctuary on the boat.

This is a really short book but incredibly powerful. The plight of the migrants is told horrifically - because it IS horrific that people die in unsafe boats in the sea, taken advantage of by unscrupulous traffickers and left to take their chances by the coastguards and governments. This is a true story, but names have been changed and Kirby, a journalist, has expanded the story to deftly get across the traumas suffered by all involved.

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