‘The Optician of Lampedusa’ by Emma Jane Kirby

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

Non-fiction – hardcover; Allen Lane; 128 pages; 2016.

I can hardly begin to describe to you what I saw as our boat approached the source of that terrible noise. I hardly want to. You won’t understand because you weren’t there. You can’t understand. You see, I thought I’d heard seagulls screeching. Seagulls fighting over a lucky catch. Birds. Just birds.

So begins Emma Jane Kirby’s The Optician of Lampedusa, which tells the true story of an optician, his wife and six of their friends who rescued 47 migrants off the coast of Sicily late in the summer of 2013.

The migrants had been fleeing Africa and were on a seriously overcrowded boat that capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, the largest island of the Italian Pelagie Islands in the Mediterranean Sea. At least 300 people drowned. (You can read a detailed account of the incident on Wikipedia.)

Short but powerful

In this short, but undeniably powerful book, Kirby brings to life the sheer tragedy of what has become an all-too familiar news story in recent years: the death by drowning of people sailing across the Mediterranean in search of a better life. It puts a very human face on those migrants and asylum seekers who are often depicted as nothing more than statistics, as people undeserving of our care and compassion because they’re “only” economic migrants.

It also puts a very human face on those caught up in rescue efforts and shows the psychological impacts on them. In this case, the optician and his wife were so traumatised by what had occurred they had difficulty sleeping, became demotivated at work and had trouble coming to terms with the fact that they were unable to save everyone on that fateful day.

Everywhere he looked, there were more of them! They seemed to multiply in the water, hands breeding hands. The optician looked at his watch and felt panic rise up in his throat — he knew they were working against the clock, here. Where the hell was the coastguard? All this time he was being taunted by the nagging doubt that they weren’t doing this right, that a professional crew would be doing things differently, more efficiently, and would be saving more people. If only they could work faster.

While Kirby does a brilliant job of putting you in the shoes of the optician, showing how his rather staid and ordinary life was turned upside down on that one fateful day and depicting the long-lasting shock and trauma he experienced, it occasionally labours under its own weight. At time it feels forced, almost as if Kirby doesn’t trust that her audience will be able to understand the plight of migrants or the dastardly things that people traffickers do.

That said, The Optician of Lampedusa is a compelling narrative and a heartfelt story full of drama and intrigue. It’s exactly the kind of story that needed to be told, to help put into context what is a terrible ongoing human tragedy.

It’s harrowing and horrifying, but it’s also perversely life-affirming, because in writing about so much pain and death, it shows how wonderfully resilient, compassionate and caring many people can be. It’s a story that shows two sides of the one coin: the worst of humanity, and the best of it, too.

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5 thoughts on “‘The Optician of Lampedusa’ by Emma Jane Kirby

  1. I’d also add that someone who liked this might like Bev Jackson’s memoir A Month With Starfish, about volunteering at a refugee centre in Lesbos. It’s only available on Kindle as far as I know, but it’s very good and only about a fiver.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for this great review. It’s strange how often the darkest tales can also be quite life affirming at the same time- I’m thinking of Far Road to the Deep North where that really struck me.
    Incidentally, I really didn’t like Black Rock White City. It felt like a mash up of two different books, although it did give great insight into the refugee experience.

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