‘The Optician of Lampedusa’ by Emma Jane Kirby

Chances are you have seen this book before. For a month or so last year, dozens of copies adorned bookshop windows across the UK and you could not pass a Waterstones or Foyles without the distinctive blue cover staring out at you. Blue is supposedly the colour of serenity, so it is fitting that this book (to use an awful cliche) is a breath of fresh air.

Emma Jane Kirby is an award-winning BBC journalist who has reported extensively on the reality of mass migration today. In The Optician of Lampedusa she brings to life the moving testimony of an ordinary man who late summer boat trip off a Sicilian island unexpectedly turns into a rescue mission.

I feel as if the influx of ‘migrants’ or, as they should be called, refugees, into Europe has experienced a lull recently in terms of news coverage. A year or so ago the ‘migrant crisis’ was on every news bulletin and newspaper cover. Now, however, we seem to have become somewhat distracted by a couple of little news items called President Trump and Brexit. In a darkly ironic way, both are entangled with the notions of immigration and refugees, so perhaps we have not really moved on at all. Where I am going with this slight ramble is to say that I think I read The Optician of Lampedusa at an appropriate time. Rather than absorbing it alongside a rush of other ‘migrant crisis’ pieces and risking it becoming just one of many, reading it a year or so after the ‘crisis’ reached its peak rightly reminded me that it is still a pressing issue. ‘Of course it is’, you might say, but, as I mentioned before, there have been two stories dominating the news recently and both have been overwhelmingly UK/US-focused.

Onto the book itself. Stylistically, it is subtle, emotive and far from the factual, journalistic style that I feared it could be. Interestingly, although it is set in Lampedusa, an island off the coast of mainland Italy, and features no English characters, I thought it was a very English book. I think this is because the optician himself seems quite ‘English’: stoical, has a bit of a stiff upper lip, has a desire to just get on with things. All very World War Two era British characteristics. The difference though, is that you can see inside his head, where he does not deny the emotional effect of being involved in such a dramatic rescue mission. Combine these two traits and you get an admirable mix of quiet determination and enough emotional vulnerability to be deeply affected by the whole event.

Finally, the optician is one of my favourite things, something I have gone on about many, many times. Apologies for that. Yes, he fits the bill of my much cherished imperfect hero character. The optician was not involved in the refugee crisis before the central event of the book, nor does he abandon his regular life after it to become some sort of saviour to refugees everywhere. More realistically (as it is a real story), he acts on a basic human desire to see survival and is carries the the results of his actions around with him long after. It is this stripped back show of human goodness, exhibited, as it should be, as the most natural thing in the world that makes this book so refreshing.


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