BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS by Louis de Bernières

BIRDS WITHOUT WINGS

KIRKUS REVIEW

The popular British author’s first since the huge international success of Corelli’s Mandolin (1994) is an epic chronicle of the making of modern Turkey.

And it’s the story of the destruction of an ethnically mixed population (including Greek, Armenian, and Turkish Christians and Muslims) who had coexisted harmoniously until the militant nationalism of warrior-politician Mustafa Kemal, a.k.a. “Ataturk” (whose history is nestled among several brother narratives), triggered wholesale atrocities and mass deportations. The novel ranges from the late-19th-century Ottoman Empire to the early 1920s and the memories of those who survive beyond them, and is centered in the village of Eskibahce in southwestern Anatolia. The lack of a central plot, frustrating in itself, is somewhat assuaged by the varied, colorful voices of de Bernières’ several narrators. Prominent among them are stoical Iskander the Potter, a repository of indigenous folklore and wisdom; impossibly beautiful Greek girl Philothei, whose thwarted love for Muslim goatherd Ibrahim forms a paradigm for their cultures’ struggles; wealthy merchant Rustum Bey, who kills his faithless wife Tamara’s lover and consigns her to public stoning, before embarking on a voyage to Istanbul that culminates in a complex relationship with his Circassian mistress Leyla; and Iskander’s son Karavatuk, who forms an unlikely friendship with Philothei’s brother Mehmetcik, and later narrates an enthralling (if overlong) account of his wartime experiences, notably the historic carnage of Gallipoli. Birds Without Wings also features beguiling interpolated stories, notably that of Yusuf the Tall, who commands his son to kill his promiscuous daughter, then declares himself a murderer. Unfortunately, it also contains numerous passages of authorial moralizing about “nationalism and religion . . . [and the] evil . . . ” they produce, as well as interminable variations on the metaphors of men as wingless birds and birds as frail, defenseless victims. It would be foolish to deny that there are great things herein, but their author’s laboriously shouldered agenda goes a long way toward undermining them.

Enormously readable, intermittently brilliant, honorably conceived and felt—and very deeply flawed.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2004
ISBN: 1-4000-4341-7
Page count: 553pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15th, 2004




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