Allen Lane, Author, Book review, Emma Jane Kirby, Italy, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘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 times 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.

If you liked this, you might also like:

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Dr Munjed Al Muderis, Iraq, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting

‘Walking Free’ by Dr Munjed Al Muderis (with Patrick Weaver)

Walking Free by Dr Munjed Al Muderis

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Allen & Unwin; 320 pages; 2014.

You may have heard of Dr Munjed Al Muderis — he’s an orthopaedic surgeon who has pioneered techniques for treating soldiers who have lost limbs. But he wasn’t always so well-known or successful. He was once a refugee.

Walking Free is the book he penned a couple of years ago with the help of journalist Patrick Weaver. It’s the kind of book I’d love to shove into the hands of every politician, policymaker and racist in the West. Not only does it tell the extraordinary tale of one man’s bid for freedom, it’s an illuminating, often anger-inducing, look at the way we treat refugees. And, if nothing else, it highlights that refugees are human beings — with life experiences, knowledge and skills to benefit us all.

Life under Saddam

Muderis was born into a rather privileged family in Iraq — he is descended from the Prophet Mohammed and one of the nine families that originally ruled Baghdad — in 1972. When he was a school boy, Saddam Hussein came to power. There were wars with Iran and Kuwait, the latter interrupting his plan to study medicine in New York. Instead he applied, and was accepted, to study medicine in Basra. Marriage and a child followed shortly after.

Then I was accepted into the surgical training program. It was a dream come true. I’d wanted to be a surgeon—especially an orthopaedic surgeon—since I was twelve or thirteen and saw the first Terminator movie. The idea of half man, half machine really captured my imagination and made me think that in future surgeons would be able to replace damaged or amputated limbs with mechanical devices. My enthusiasm to become a surgeon was boundless, but resources were hard to come by. For urgent use, we were reduced to keeping drip lines, saline solution and such things in our lockers in the on-call room, because the supplies just weren’t available.

Things took a turn for the worse when Muderis, now 27, was working as a junior surgeon in the Saddam Hussein Medical Centre in Baghdad. It was 1999. A busload of army deserters were hauled into the hospital and Muderis and his surgical colleagues were ordered to cut off the tops of their ears. The order came direct from Saddam Hussein. When one surgeon objected on the grounds of the Hippocratic oath of “do no harm” he was taken outside and summarily executed by gunfire. Muderis, aware that the same would happen to him, did the only thing he could think of: he hid in the women’s toilet for five hours and then fled when the coast was clear.

He knew he was now a marked man, and for the next few weeks lived a life on the run, eventually getting across the border to the relative safety of Jordan with the help of family and friends. He then flew to Malaysia, the only place in the world where Iraqi citizens did not need a visa, and unwittingly fell in with a pair of refugees who were aiming to get to Australia with the help of some human traffickers.

Holed up in Indonesia, he expected to wait months to get himself on an illegal boat to Christmas Island, an Australian territory south of Indonesia, but he was able to jump the people smuggling queue because a doctor was needed on board the next “ferry” out. What ensued was a frightening drama at sea — more than 160 people crammed on a boat designed for 50, with basic food, scarce medical supplies and scarce water.

I knew we were all in for a horror of a journey. You didn’t need to be a medical expert to figure out this was a recipe for disaster. […] We had heard on the news when we were in Jakarta about a refugee boat that had left a few days before ours and had sunk. No survivors. So our tenuous grip on life was extremely high in our consciousness.

Arrival in Australia

When the boat eventually arrived at Christmas Island after a hideous and perilous journey (the captain abandoned ship long before it landed), Muderis found a warm welcome, but it was not to last long. He, along with all the other refugees, were shipped to the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre in the remote Kimberly region of Western Australia — about as far from civilisation as you can get and described by the Refugee Action Council of Victoria as “the worst of Australia’s hellholes”. It was here that Muderis says he was treated like a criminal, verbally abused and “constantly told I should return as soon as possible to my homeland”:

Climbing from the bus was like walking into an oven. The heat hit us immediately and, to make matters worse, seemed to be reflected from the desert earth. Straightaway, a guard was there with a permanent marker pen, writing a number on our wrists and shoulders. It wouldn’t wash off. And that was our new identity. From then until the day I left Curtin, I was known by the authorities only as 982. Never by my name. Just my number. […]

Later, we were given photo identity badges with our allocated number. It was, as many things were in Curtin, completely dehumanising. And, I feel certain, it was purposely so. Our initial contact with the Curtin officers was equally as confronting and depressing. ‘Go home,’ they were telling us. ‘If you think Australia’s a land of milk and honey, think again.’ And: ‘Be careful, there are deadly spiders and snakes all over the camp and if they bite you, they can kill you in a few minutes. There’s nothing you’ll be able to do.’ Welcome to Australia.

To cut a long story short, Muderis was eventually given refugee status and allowed to stay in Australia — but it was a long 10 months to get there, having been punished with solitary confinement on several occasions and being sent to an actual prison (where the conditions were so much better than the camp) for a short stint. And despite this inhumane treatment — Muderis calls his experience at Curtin as “the ultimate dehumanisation” — he decided to adopt Australia as his homeland and get on with the business of leading a full and productive life.

He is now one of the world’s leading specialists in osseointegration in which prosthetic limbs are implanted and fused into bone Terminator style. Ironically, much of his work helps soldiers who lost limbs in the Iraqi war.

A compelling true story

There’s no doubt Walking Free is a compelling and powerful true story. Indeed, it is almost too outrageous to be true — to go from refugee to world-leading orthopaedic surgeon seems like something only a Hollywood scriptwriter could come up with. And yet the tale that is told here, linear fashion and occasionally clunky (it takes a while to get going), is entirely factual.

I went through a whole gamut of emotions reading it — from shame to anger and everything in between — but came away feeling buoyed up by hope. Yet I can’t help thinking that Muderis survived because he was resilient, strong and resourceful — what of those other refugees less able to cope?

Recently a video of Dr Al Muderis featured on the home page of the Guardian website. You can also view a YouTube video of him doing a TED talk about his journey from refugee to surgeon in Sydney last year:


For another take on Walking Free, please see Lisa from ANZ LitLovers review.

This is my 35th book for #ReadingAustralia2016

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Hybrid Publishers, literary fiction, Publisher, Robert Hollingworth, Setting

‘The Colour of the Night’ by Robert Hollingworth


Fiction – paperback; Hybrid Publishers; 321 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

When I first came to the UK in 1998 and told people I came from Melbourne, the first thing they wanted to talk about was the Australian soap Neighbours, which is set there. At that time Brits were such fans of the show it was screened twice daily. I still remember staying in a youth hostel in Glasgow and being holed up in my room by a backpacker from Northern Ireland who knew all the characters and storylines inside out but mistakenly thought many of the locations, including the suburb Erinsborough, were real places.

I mention this because if Neighbours is your only reference for what life in the Melbourne suburbs is like then this book by Robert Hollingworth will shatter all your illusions — but in a good way.

The Colour of the Night follows the lives of a group of neighbours living in a terrace of three houses on Frederick Street in an inner-city suburb. They don’t know each other when the novel opens but by the end they’re all familiar with one another in ways that are sometimes surprising and sometimes shocking.

Meet the neighbours

Stefanie and Simon are married artists, with two children — 18-year-old Jess, a Goth with a drug habit who self-harms, and James, who lives in a bungalow in the back garden and has a job in roadworks.

Next door lives divorcée Adele, who has given up a career in nursing to make more money as an escort, and her son, Elton, who has dropped out of university and spends his entire time online.

Then there is Nikos, a Greek landlord, who rents out the terraced house on the corner to two tenants: Arman, a refugee from Afghanistan who now drives a taxi, and Benton, an Englishman who has an unhealthy interest in children.

Drawing all these neighbours together is Shaun, an 11-year-old boy, orphaned by the Black Saturday bush fires. He has a great affinity for nature — “He entered the bush as other children entered an interactive game, although Shaun’s console control was little more than a snapped stick, his keyboard the whole forest, his mouse a mouse” — so when he moves to the city to live with his aunt, Adele, and cousin, Elton, it comes as somewhat of a shock.

Technological advance

The author, who takes his time to introduce each of these well-drawn characters chapter by chapter, explores many themes in this intriguing novel, including the city versus the country, and nature versus digital technology. He deftly builds up a series of interconnections between everyone (which occasionally relies on a smidgen too much coincidence, but that’s by the by) and in doing so shows how the concept of community in the real world has often been lost, perhaps because we’re too busy building up our social networks online.

There are minor disasters — a DIY basement excavation has repercussions for the entire terrace, for instance —  a blossoming love affair and a case of adultery, but Hollingworth doesn’t resort to cheap operatics: he keeps things fairly restrained and, to his credit, doesn’t let his narrative succumb to predictable outcomes.

It feels like a thoroughly contemporary novel, focusing as it does on how quickly our world is moving in terms of technology. This exchange between Elton and Shaun, whom are just eight years apart in age, is but one example:

… Shaun asked on an impulse, ‘Elton, what did you do where you were my age?’
‘What I do now, I guess. But the computer games were pretty basic. Google was new, no Instagram, no Twitter or Vine, no Tumblr or Kik or…’
‘What did you do when you were five?’
Elton tried to think. ‘It was a different world then, Shaun. You couldn’t do stuff that we take for granted today. Just 64 kilobytes. Unbelievable.’

The Colour of the Night also asks important questions about spirituality, our connections with the natural world and our relationship to art and culture. It’s filled with great dialogue, intriguing characters (with even more intriguing back stories) and brilliant descriptions of people and places. But when all is said and done it’s just a great story well told about contemporary life in modern Australia. And, needless to say, it’s far more authentic — and entertaining — than any episode of Neighbours.

Please note that you won’t find The Colour of the Night in book stores outside of Australia. However, you can order a copy direct from the publisher or buy an electronic edition from Amazon US and Amazon UK.