Review: The Closest Thing To Flying by Gill Lewis
Many years ago, another girl her age had sat looking at this bird.
Something about it had changed her life.
Semira wondered if she and the diary were somehow connected, as if her whole future were bound up within its pages.
Maybe this small green bird could unlock the secrets of Semira’s past.
Maybe it could even change Semira’s whole life too.
(From The Closest Thing To Flying by Gill Lewis. P19.)
Semira and her mother have no choice but to live with abusive, angry Robel. If they tell immigration the truth Robel says they will be sent back to Eritrea. When Semira breaks the rules and buys an old hat at a junk store, she finds a diary written in the 1800s written by a girl called Hen.
Hen writes about the social expectations of women, and how fearless aunt Kitty is for forming her own opinions. Reading about Hen and Kitty makes Semira feel braver, but will it be enough to help herself and her mother?
A touching and beautiful story about the powers and limitations of bravery.
There is a saying. The battle’s lost but not the war. This is a story about knowing where we stand against injustice and oppression, but also knowing the limitations of what we can do alone.
Both strands of the story were beautiful. I felt I knew Semira straight away. She’s been through some difficult times and has learned through necessity to keep her head down, but she is also a fighter. A rebel. She hasn’t allowed Robel to dictate her thoughts.
Hen lives in a society where women are forced to adhere to strict rules, but the earliest signs of rebellion are happening underground. After riding a bicycle and feeling liberated, Hen questions what else women might do.
The other character who deserves mention is Semira’s real-life friend Patrick. Patrick is bullied at school and misunderstood, but he shows Semira true friendship and loyalty. As his story unfolds the reader is reminded people have experienced far more than we know from the surface.
This is also a brilliant historical and political novel, showing how the formation of the RSPB (then the Society for the Protection of Birds) was founded by a woman in protest to the use of feathers in fashion. We also see the social undercurrents which later lead to the women’s suffrage movements, and the trials faced by refugees in Britain today.
What could have been a serious book is exceptionally uplifting. We can find friends in the darkest of times, and those friends can be the catalyst we need to challenge ourselves. They also offer cake and company and an open door.
A beautiful story from an established and popular author. This made me desperate to seek out Gill Lewis’s earlier work, and I look forward to catching up on her other stories.
Thanks to Oxford University Press for my gifted copy of The Closest Thing To Flying. Opinions my own.