The Optician of Lampedusa – Emma Jane Kirby (2016). Allen Lane

This has to be one of the most important books of this year. I bought this book on a whim last month when Waterstones were donating £5 from each sale of this book to Oxfam (raising over £55k in the process), but this is an incredible book for its subject matter which is a rescue mission off the coast of the island of Lampedusa.

This is a fictionalised account of a true story. Emma Jane Kirby is a journalist who has won several awards for her work on the frontline of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. The real optician, Carmine Menna, was out sailing with his wife Rosaria and six of their friends when they came across the aftermath of a sunken refugee boat, tens of survivors struggling in the water. This was October 2013. They managed to rescue forty seven people from the water, but many others perished before their eyes, and in total over three hundred died that day, many of them women and children who had been huddled below deck and had no chance to escape once the boat began to sink.

Standing high above the water level on the cabin roof, his arm still outstretched, the optician saw the black dots come into focus. Bodies were flung like skittles across the sea’s glassy surface, some bobbing precariously, some horizontal and horribly heavy. The people in the water had all seen Galata now and they were churning the sea into a frenzy with their flailing arms and legs. Every time a wave collapsed, another black dot or head was revealed. The sea was littered with them.

By fictionalising the account, this is an easier read than I think it would have been as a non-fiction account. There is the lull before the storm, watching the group of eight meet up for dinner the night before. Then the aftermath as the coastguard takes over. The horror of finding out that they were not the first boat to pass the drowning refugees, but were the first to stop. There are some awful moments, heart-breaking conversations that the optician has with the divers who have to go down and recover the hundreds of bodies, including one of a young woman and her baby, the umbilical cord still attached. There is the visit that the friends make to the refugee centre when they are denied entry to check on the survivors. There is a good chance this book will make you cry.

The attitude of the authorities is also not ignored. At first, there is outrage that such an atrocity could happen in Italy. State funerals are promised for all of the dead, and the optician and his friends are celebrated for their heroic efforts, though they don’t welcome the attention. But soon the funerals are downgraded. The rescue missions are considered too expensive. Locals begin to complain that the number of refugees is affecting tourism, that people are choosing other islands for their holidays. A NIMBY attitude takes precedence and the horror of that day is soon forgotten to those who were not there.

Kirby could leave us mired in the horror of that day but she doesn’t thank goodness. The ending is hopeful. On the year anniversary of the accident a few of the survivors travel from Sweden, where they are being processed, to Lampedusa in order to attend a memorial. They go back out in the boat to pay their respects, though one of the young men is terrified of getting back on the water. We see how the optician and his wife have suffered with nightmares and post traumatic stress but are starting to recover. What gives me hope is that there are people like Carmine Menna out there, ordinary people showing compassion and not just looking out for themselves.

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