RED BIRDS by Mohammed Hanif
Kirkus Star


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A satire of American military power that skirts didacticism while skewering our nation's misadventures in the Middle East.

Hanif (Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, 2012, etc.) sets us down in an unidentified Middle Eastern country, where a darkly cynical American fighter pilot named Ellie has been sent on a possibly unethical bombing run by a mysterious institution called Central Command. Ellie—whose military training combined deadly firepower with cultural sensitivity lessons like "Eat and Drink with the Enemy"—bows to pressure from Col. Slatter to flatten a compound he insists is "a real bad place full of bad bad people. You can smell the evil from the skies." Ellie crash-lands on his way to the compound, though, and finds himself wandering the desert, desperate to survive. That bad, bad compound turns out to be a refugee camp for victims of the American war. Momo, a wisecracking teenager with delusional schemes of capitalist grandeur and a world-weary suspicion of everything around him, lives there with his grieving mother, feckless father, and brother, Ali. Momo is given to dark proclamations on the world's moral state. "How're you gonna keep your integrity in a place where thievery is not only accepted but also expected?" he asks early in the book. He tromps around the camp wearing an "I Heart NY" cap and drives a Jeep through the desert. By the time the novel opens, Ali, who was an informant giving bombing targets to the Americans, has gone to work at a nearby American military facility known simply as the Hangar—and never returns. Ever since he's disappeared, American bombings have ceased. Momo is determined to figure out what's behind Ali's disappearance, and when Ellie arrives at the camp at the same time as an American aid worker and academic nicknamed Lady Flowerbody, the boy hatches a plan to retrieve his brother. Amid all this, supernatural occurrences are happening in the desert beyond the compound. Momo's journey to get his brother back will take him into the heart of the American presence in his country—and that presence is not at all what he expects. Narrated in the first-person from multiple perspectives—Ellie's, Momo's, and even that of Momo's dog, Mutt—Hanif's novel maneuvers between compelling, hilarious voices with the fast pace of a slapstick comedy, albeit a comedy with teeth. In a surreal flourish, the book climaxes with a final act that is a little too frantic for its own good. Thankfully, by the time the ending arrives, we've gotten to spend quality time with Hanif's indelible characters.

Funny, fresh, and not afraid to draw blood, this is an unusual gem of a book.

Pub Date: May 14th, 2019
ISBN: 978-0-8021-4728-8
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Black Cat/Grove
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 2019


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