I spent just one day in Albania.
Back in October 1990, it was an innovative day trip to offer holiday makers. But a visit to a communist country was an exciting prospect to someone brought up on Cold War thrillers and stories of my civil servant brother having to formally declare such travel.
So I got up in the dark for the early boat crossing from Corfu Town and felt myself the intrepid traveller to have Albania’s stamp added to my passport. I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing the world’s first officially atheist nation finally opening its borders to the outside world.
Clearly, the Albanian Tourist Board was keen to put on a good show. We were whisked by coach from an unspoiled Roman amphitheatre to mile upon mile of industrial fish farm, pride oozing from every syllable of our guide’s commentary. We struggled through a multi course wedding feast in a local town hall with incomprehensible speeches and traditional dancing.
Little did I realise what a turning point 1990 would be. That December, student riots led to the fall of communism and by 1992, a Democratic government was elected. Those same years were a turning point for me too as I moved and got married. My trip faded to a curious but unique memoir.
When I got the chance to review The Migrant by Paul Alkazraji, I remembered that visit, fascinated to learn about how the country has developed since.
The novel takes us specifically to the period of the Greek financial crisis, one of Albania’s immediate neighbours. This fiction, set in a very real time, gives a human face to the issue of economic migration. It’s easy to watch news reports or read bare facts without being moved or understanding the individual cost of political decisions; it can all seem very far away and irrelevant – this book changed that for me. It gave me an insight into how criminal gangs so easily take advantage of vulnerable migrants.
The book follows the search for a young man who has left his family to cross the border to find better prospects in Athens. Alban’s story personalises the promise and danger of illegal immigration, the temptations that can suck a young man into gang culture, but it also gives hope for escape and new life. However, there is a cost.
This is a tale of bravery and sacrifice, of the lengths love will go to for someone else, particularly Christian love. It is a costly love for the rescuers and those back home.
There is a welcome ambiguity to the characters in The Migrant, both Albanian and Greek. Heroes and villains question their actions. Alongside the physical journey, several figures travel a moral and spiritual path with choices to be made about which branches to take. Redemption and restored relationships lie ahead with the right choices.
I couldn’t put the book down during the tense action scenes: Alban’s precarious journey over the mountains; jeopardy in the hotel room; the group’s perilous escape. And at least one storyline is left open to further development so I’m hoping there will be a follow up novel.
I would sound one note of caution. I made the mistake of not realising this was a sequel so was slow to feel invested in the main characters and confused initially by a couple of key names. Motivation and story arc make much more sense if you read Paul’s previous novel, The Silencer, first. So do read both – they are excellent page turners – but just do it in the right order!
Paul Alkazraji is the author of ‘The Migrant’, a thriller set against the background of the European Migrant Crisis, and published by Instant Apostle on 15 February 2019. Paul worked as a freelance journalist in the UK from the mid-nineties. He was published in Christianity Magazine, The Christian Herald, The Church Times and The Baptist Times among other publications, and his travel articles were also published in The Independent.
Paul’s first book Love Changes Everything, a collection of seven testimonies, was published by Scripture Union in 2001, and his second, Heart of a Hooligan, a biography of ex-football hooligan Dave Jeal, was published by Highland Books in 2000. His third book Christ and the Kalashnikov, a biography of missionaries Ian and Caralee Loring, was published by Harper Collins in 2001. The Silencer, a thriller set in Albania, Greece and Turkey, was published by Highland Books in 2012.
Paul has lived and worked with the church in Albania for fifteen years. He likes listening to music, being by the Aegean Sea or Ohrid Lake, and skiing – when the snow comes!
(DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of The Migrant in order to write this review)