Monday, 24 July 2017

FIRST ANNIVERSARY guest post by Tracy Chevalier: THE OPTICIAN OF LAMPEDUSA by Emma-Jane Kirby

It's our birthday! We are a year old this week. Huge thanks to all the guest contributors who make this possible by lending us their time, expertise and enthusiasms - we wouldn't be able to do it without their willing help. Special thanks to this week's guest, Tracy Chevalier, for helping us to mark the occasion. Her brilliant novel Remarkable Creatures was our very first review, and we're delighted to welcome her now in person with this timely recommendation.

"The most moving and important book I’ve read in the past year..."

Tracy Chevalier FRSL is the author of nine novels. She is best known for the international bestseller Girl with a Pearl Earring, which has been translated into 39 languages, sold over 5 million copies worldwide, and made into a film. Her most recent books are the historical novel At the Edge of the Orchard, and New Boy, a retelling of Othello for the Shakespeare Project. She is President of the Royal Literary Fund, a Trustee of the British Library, former Chair of the Society of Authors, and holds honorary degrees from her alma maters, Oberlin College and the University of East Anglia. She grew up in Washington DC and in 1984 moved to London, where she lives with her husband and son.

The most moving and important book I’ve read in the past year is The Optician of Lampedusa by the journalist Emma-Jane Kirby. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction other than for research purposes; I’ve often found it slow-going and worthy, as if a determined lecturer is trying to force information into me. This book is different: short, urgent, devastating. Kirby first came across the story and reported it on BBC Radio 4. Now she has turned it into a clear, simply written true tale for our time. I read it in two hours and it will stay with me for life.

A few years ago an ordinary, unnamed optician who lives on the small island of Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily went on a fishing trip for a couple of days with his wife and six friends. One morning they woke to distant sounds of distress, and discovered that close by a boat full of migrants and refugees crossing from North Africa had sunk. The waters were churning with over 500 people struggling to stay afloat. The book describes in detail how the optician and his friends scrambled to rescue 47 people, pulling them onto a boat designed to hold only 10. If you have ever wondered how you might respond to an extreme crisis, the optician and his friends provide a model of how to connect with your vital inner humanitarianism.

The rest of the book deals with the aftermath of that harrowing experience and the group’s struggle with the resulting psychological trauma. Having thought little about migrants and refugees until then, they developed great concern for the people they rescued, and later managed to meet with them, in a heartfelt reunion. It is a lesson in how specific stories change people’s views of a general crisis.

The optician is realistic about the effect the influx of refugees has had on Lampedusa’s community and resources, but reveals a new understanding of what it means for people to risk so much to get to Europe and a new life.

Many of us have spent a lot of time talking about the refugee crisis without having any real experience of it. Whatever our views, most are unlikely ever to meet a refugee, much less save them from drowning. The Optician of Lampedusa makes concrete and personal what has been an abstraction. Once you’ve read it you’ll feel like a crucial piece of the jigsaw – the human piece – has been filled in. For that reason, it is a must-read.

The Optician of Lampedusa is published by Or Books.


  1. I'm off to buy it. It sounds a very important book. Thank you, Tracy.

  2. I can't wait to read it. Thanks very much for this review.

  3. Thank you for reviewing for us, Tracy and for letting us all know about this important book.

  4. I must read this one. Thank you for this review, Tracy.