Emma Jane Kirby is a journalist whose main body of work resides in foreign correspondence, this is clear in her writing style which is descriptive, to the point and present.
The Optician of Lampedusa tells the tale of an ordinary optician who is faced with the unexpected mission of rescuing refugees. The story is told through the main character who is held at arms length from the audience, void of a name. Yet, insights into the Optician’s mind’s eye via descriptions, such as how an empty lifebuoy ‘had felt mockingly light’ during a rescue mission, allow us to connect with the main character through his experiences. (In this case as an inanimate object is personified, connecting us with the Optician’s feelings of desperation and barbarity. Kirby chooses this method to connect the audience with the Optician rather than using the lengthier process of exploring his persona.) The Optician could be anyone, and this point is made evident in more than just the plot line that Kirby creates.
In this short novel, the rescue mission is over within one day. However the residing effects of this unforeseen event spread throughout a hundred pages and a year of the character’s lives. The Optician and his seven close acquaintances become hellbent on maintaining a connection that literally collided foreign heartbeats with their own. The topic of migration previously whistled past the ears of these individuals; echoes of the subject attached only by a distant, foreign sadness that follows seeing tragedy on the news — this suddenly changed. We follow a journey of learning to accept foreign tragedy as a real part of our own timeline.
Published not too long after the image of a two year old boy washed up on Turkish shore lines, the possibility of the ordinary optician being one of us is not too hard to comprehend. This image although harrowing would have hit harder if we had been the photographer that found that boy. We as readers would have been just as disturbed as the optician on that boat. Kirby brings a closeness to the subject with her compact writing style, simple set scenes and cleverly crafted characterisation. If you are looking for a way to highlight the impact of the refugee crisis to any individual, gifting this novel would be a great start. Kirby’s direct writing style, hosted in third person will bring any reader into the very heart of the issue of migration.