From an award-winning BBC journalist, this moving book turns the testimony of an accidental hero into a timeless story about the awakening of human courage and conscience.
'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.'
Emma-Jane Kirby has reported extensively on the reality of mass migration today. In The Optician of Lampedusa she brings to life the moving testimony of an ordinary man whose late summer boat trip off a Sicilian island unexpectedly turns into a tragic rescue mission.
The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby was published on 29 September 2016 by Allen Lane, an imprint of Penguin Books.
This is a beautifully presented, slim hardback of just under 200 pages. Not very long, but incredibly hard hitting. It took me a while to read it, it's a harrowing, explicit read. It tears at the conscience, it opens the eyes and it filled me with despair.
Narrated by 'the optician', is the true story of the day that he, his wife and their friends took their boat out for a last sail, just as the summer was ending, just before people would leave the island to return to their winter work.
It was a fine day, and the optician had been looking forward to it. He would be glad to get away from his customers, who annoy him. What happened to him that day will never leave him. He saw and heard things that he could never imagine, and Emma Jane Kirby relates his story with a brutal honesty. The optician is not perfect by any means, but his inner goodness screams out through these words. It is a shocking story, and one that should be read by everyone.
There can't be anyone who has not seen or read the reports of boats full of migrants, fleeing their homelands, in search of safety in Europe. We know that many of them don't make it. We've seen the photographs and the news reports. Bodies laying on beaches, adults and children, washed up. They reached Europe, but they didn't find safety. It's happening every day, to thousands of human beings, yet I guess that many of us feel a separation from it.
The optician was aware. He saw migrants walking the streets every day. He knew that the island of Lampedusa was where many of them finished their sea journey before attempting to go further inland. He'd grown used to them, he didn't give them a great deal of thought.
Out on the sea, with his family and friends, the optician's peaceful day was shattered by what he thought were seagulls screeching. When he realised that these were human voices, and when he began to desperately try to rescue them, his life changed completely. Emma Jane Kirby does not shy away from the horrors of that day. The loss of life, how the survivors lost their dignity. How ashamed they were. Their terror and their sorrow.
I urge everyone to read The Optician of Lampedusa. It is a vitally important story, especially in our ever-changing political world. Brutal, harrowing and heartbreaking.
I bought my copy from Waterstone's ~ it was their 'Book of the Month', and £5 from every sale was donated to Oxfam.
Emma Jane Kirby’s is a familiar BBC voice, delivering news reports from the world’s hotspots. Her dispatches for Radio 4’s PM programme from the frontline of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean won her plaudits and an international prize.
Follow her on Twitter @kirbyej