The Good Deed: A Novel

  • By Helen Benedict
  • Red Hen Press
  • 304 pp.
  • Reviewed by Norah Vawter
  • April 23, 2024

Exploring the complexities of the refugee crisis and the human condition.

The Good Deed: A Novel

Helen Benedict’s The Good Deed is an ambitious, gorgeously written novel about the lives of refugees and the failure of systems to care for these vulnerable survivors of wars and brutal regimes. It also delves deep into universal themes like anguish, redemption, and motherhood. Set on Samos — a Greek island that seems like paradise — the story centers on an American tourist and three refugees from the Middle East and Africa whose lives intertwine in unexpected ways.

Benedict, the author of multiple works of fiction and nonfiction, is a journalism professor at Columbia focused on social injustice, refugees, war, and violence against women. The Good Deed is rooted in the research she conducted for Map of Hope and Sorrow. That nonfiction book, co-authored with Syrian writer/refugee Eyad Awwadawnan, won the PEN/Jean Stein Grant for Literary Oral History.

In The Good Deed, Hilma is a wealthy, middle-aged white woman with a secret. She’s come to Greece to recover from personal trauma. Imagine her surprise when, upon arrival, she learns the island paradise is also home to a squalid refugee camp. A liberal, Hilma feels empathetic and guilty to be vacationing here, but also grotesquely curious. When she risks her life to save a refugee child, it’s a truly good deed. But there’s so much she doesn’t understand about this world and her own fear. When she tries to help further, her attempts are misguided and disruptive:

“Most tourists don’t venture into this part of town, and I, in my inelegant khaki capris, baggy pink T-shirt, and unfortunate hat, am clearly a tourist. I am curious about these women, too, and wish I could think of a way to open a conversation with them…I wonder what wars they have fled, whom they have lost, what they have suffered.”

The book takes us inside the camp and into the minds of three women living there. Amina, 19, from Syria, spent years imprisoned for reading a poem criticizing the military regime at the funeral of her brother, who was killed for joining rebel forces. Leila, also Syrian, is a widow though she’s not yet 40. She’s focused on caring for her two young sons and waiting for news about her adult daughter and granddaughter, who were separated from them on the voyage. Narisa, from Sudan, witnessed the murders of her husband and all her children before being raped and impregnated by a soldier.

At its core, The Good Deed is about the prolonged effects of suffering and trauma, the bonds of family (both blood and found), how we help and hurt those we care for, and the power of hope and resilience. Telling so many people’s stories at once is tricky, but Benedict creates a unified narrative from this complex tapestry. She also writes beautifully:

“The world refuses to hear us, no matter how wise we might be. We tell men to stop killing; they won’t listen. We tell them to save the young from war; they don’t hear. We tell them not to fight; they call us ignorant. We tell them not to poison the planet; they count their money. And look at the world now.”

At times, the book’s structure is irritating. Much of the action takes place in the past and is recounted in stories our characters tell. These tales were gripping, and I sometimes grew frustrated that the present action wasn’t equally compelling.

This was also a difficult book because of its detailed depictions of violence — shootings and rape — and dead bodies. I wept several times and, on occasion, had to take a break from reading. Still, it’s important that we don’t look away from the planet’s ugly realities; a just world depends on us caring enough to pay attention. While some scenes might not serve the story as the author intended — they may pique readers’ morbid curiosity rather than provoke their empathy — the novel is worth the struggle.

Ultimately, The Good Deed is neither cynical nor depressing but hopeful. It’s about the triumph of the human spirit, about ordinary people who survive not because they’re superheroes but because they seize upon moments of good fortune, help each other, and refuse to give up. As one character says, “It’s in your eyes, Amina. In your refusal to succumb.” There’s no neat Hollywood ending here, but this is a surprisingly optimistic book.

Norah Vawter is the Local Authors Editor of, a freelance writer/editor, and a novelist represented by Victress Literary. She lives in Northern Virginia with her family.

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