Book Review: The Optician of Lampedusa
By Alice Fowler
Four years ago, an optician living on the Italian island of Lampedusa went on a boat trip. From the sea he heard cries which at first he thought were seagulls. Quickly, however, the man realised that the sounds were human. The water around him was full of people: Eritrean migrants, over 300 of them – some dead, some alive and some drowning before his eyes.
Also on Lampedusa in October 2013 was BBC journalist Emma Jane Kirby. Searching for a fresh angle on the migrant crisis, she told the optician’s story on Radio 4’s PM programme, presented by Eddie Mair.
Four years on, Kirby’s report has become a successful book – The Optician of Lampedusa – one of many highlights of this year’s Guildford Book Festival.
Speaking at the St Nicholas Church Centre on Sunday, at an event in partnership with Amnesty International, Kirby described how people across the world have been moved by the optician’s story. “For the first time people could understand the crisis. They could imagine themselves in the boat. They could think, what would I have done in his place?”
Like other residents of Lampedusa, just 70 miles from Africa, the optician had grown used to turning a blind eye to the scores of migrants arriving on his island shores. In her book, Kirby intends him to be an everyman figure: an ordinary man, faced by an extraordinary situation, who reaches out and helps.
With his wife and friends, the optician hauled 47 people on board his boat: a small pleasure craft whose maximum capacity was 10. Sadly, scores of others drowned, less than a kilometre off the coast of Europe, in what was then Lampedusa’s largest shipwreck.
Not many radio reports end up as a book. Kirby’s won an award for international war reporting, and she was contacted by a French publisher. The result is a short, gripping read which Kirby describes as “a non-fiction novel”.
“All the facts in the book are true,” she said. “I wanted it to read like a novel, to lull readers into a false sense of security. I wanted them to suddenly remember: these people really drowned. I was haunted – still am haunted – by the optician’s story.”
Plenty of other events, every bit as stimulating, are still to come at this year’s Book Festival, which runs until October 15. From Charles Spencer on the manhunt for Charles II, to Ben Okri, Alison Weir and Nigella Lawson, to name but a few, there is something for everyone.
For tickets and further details see: www.guildfordbookfestival.co.uk