Oxford University Press
Two girls, a century apart. Together they’ll find freedom.
Gill Lewis’ new novel is a compelling and powerful story that moved me to tears. The empathetic writing and emotive narrative is delivered with conviction by a writer of rare quality. It’s a wonderful story that manages to encompass so much, leaving you slightly dazed.
The story centres on Semira, a young refugee from Eritrea. There is little in the story about her journey to London; instead, the focus is on her struggle, several years since her arrival, to escape the clutches of the man who brought her to the UK. He is manipulative and overpowering, forcing Semira’s mum to work to earn him money; denying them food, stability and the freedom they have sought. Robel is an ugly piece of work.
He is furious when Semira buys an old hat on a market stall for a few pounds. She is attracted by a memory triggered by the small bird mounted on the brim. Semira discovers the diary of a Victorian girl and a connection is made that spans the century. Now look again at the cover of the book, and the amazing artwork of Paola Escobar – there is a symmetry to these girls’ lives – their stories seem to be reflections of each other as they find inspiration in a kindred spirit. They are linked by the hat, by their experiences and by their motivations and desires.
Hen’s lifestyle is a complete contrast to Semira – she is the daughter of a well-heeled businessman and his wife (who keeps the social diary). But this lifestyle, like Semira’s, is stifling and Hen finds hope and ambition in her Aunt Katherine. Dealing with votes for women and animal rights, the overarching theme of the novel is finding your place, knowing your worth, and having the freedom to be yourself.
Gill says, “The Closest Thing to Flying is a story about friendship and loyalty and standing up for others, and is set against a backdrop of women’s rights. Henrietta’s story made me question how far we have come since Victorian times. Women still face discrimination in many aspects of life. I wanted to write a story about the empowerment of women and celebrate those people, both female and male, who help to make it happen. I wanted Henrietta to reach through time to a modern girl and share her story. I needed to connect the two girls across a whole century, and find something that could link them both.
That something became a bird. A small green bird. All the way, from the Horn of Africa.”
Gill writes with such intensity that you can often hear her voice and feel her passion for these subjects. The Closest Thing to Flying is most definitely from the heart. Stunning.
Thank you to OUP for sending us a copy of The Closest Thing to Flying in exchange for a review. The Closest Thing to Flying is available now from your local bookshop or direct from OUP. You can visit Gill’s website here or follow her on Twitter.