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Summary and book reviews of Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres

Birds Without Wings

by Louis de Bernieres

Birds Without Wings
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2004, 576 pages
    Paperback:
    Jun 2005, 576 pages

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Book Summary

Epic in its narrative sweep, steeped in historical fact yet profoundly humane, and dazzlingly evocative in its emotional and sensual detail. This is de Bernières' first book since Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

Louis de Bernières's last novel, Corelli's Mandolin, was met with the highest praise: "Behind every page," said Richard Russo, "we sense its author's intelligence, wit, heart, imagination, and wisdom. This is a great book." A. S. Byatt placed the author in "the direct line that runs through Dickens and Evelyn Waugh." Now, de Bernières gives us his long-awaited new novel. Huge, resonant, lyrical, filled with humor and pathos, a novel about the political and personal costs of war, and of love–between men and women, between friends, between those who are driven to be enemies.

It is the story of a small coastal town in South West Anatolia in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire told in the richly varied voices of the people–Christians and Muslims of Turkish and Greek and Armenian descent–whose lives are rooted there, intertwined for untold years. There is Iskander, the potter and local font of proverbial wisdom; Karatavuk–Iskander's son–and Mehmetçik, childhood friends whose playground stretches across the hills above the town, where Mehmetçik teaches the illiterate Karatavuk to write Turkish in Greek letters. There are Father Kristoforos and Abdulhamid Hodja, holy men of different faiths who greet each other as "Infidel Efendi"; Rustem Bey, the landlord and protector of the town, whose wife is stoned for the sin of adultery. There is a man known as "the Dog" because of his hideous aspect, who lives among the Lycian tombs; and another known as "the Blasphemer," who wanders the town cursing God and all of his representatives of all faiths. And there is Philothei, the Christian girl of legendary beauty, courted from infancy by Ibrahim the goatherd–a great love that culminates in tragedy and madness. But Birds Without Wings is also the story of Mustafa Kemal, whose military genius will lead him to victory against the invading Western European forces of the Great War and a reshaping of the whole region.

When the young men of the town are conscripted, we follow Karatavuk to Gallipoli, where the intimate brutality of battle robs him of all innocence. And in the town he left behind, we see how the twin scourges of fanatical religion and nationalism unleashed by the war quickly, and irreversibly, destroy the fabric of centuries-old peace.

Epic in its narrative sweep–steeped in historical fact–yet profoundly humane and dazzlingly evocative in its emotional and sensual detail, Birds Without Wings is a triumph.

Chapter 27
The Tyranny of Honour

Yusuf the Tall loved all his children equally, with a passionate adoration that, when he thought about it, sometimes made him lachrymose. If his life were like a garden, then his daughters would be like the roses growing alongside its walls, and his sons would be like young trees that formed a palisade against the world. When they were small he devoted happy hours to their entertainment, and when they grew older he hugged them until their eyes bulged and they thought that their ribs would crack. He had grown to love his wife too, partly because this is what happens when a wife is well chosen, and partly because from her loins had sprung these brooks and becks of happiness.

But now Yusuf the Tall did not know what to do with his hands. It seemed as though they were behaving on their own. The thumb and middle finger of his left hand stroked across his eyeballs, meeting at the bridge of his nose. It was comforting, perhaps, for a scintilla of time...

Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!

About This Books  

Set on the eve of World War I, Birds Without Wings tells the story of Eskibahçe, a charming and vibrant ethnically mixed town in present-day Turkey, and how it is irrevocably changed by the ravages of nationalism, war, and religious fervor. Before the war, Eskibahçe is filled with a wild assortment of characters, Christian and Muslim, Turkish and Armenian, the mad and the sane, the rich and the poor, living side by side in remarkable harmony.

There ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

A very exceptional book from the author of Captain Corelli's Mandolin.   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

Full Review Members Only (309 words).

Media Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle

Dazzling. . .a fabulous book in the tradition of Tolstoy and Dickens. . . . So joyous and heartbreaking, so rich and musical and wise, that reading it is like discovering anew the enchanting power of fiction.

The Economist

An absorbing read about a remote but captivating time. The Ottoman world's break-up is a rich, poignant story, and Mr. de Bernières is a good storyteller. At times he is nearly as good as Dido Sotiriou.

Independent (UK)

The most eagerly awaited novel of the year. . . . In counterpoint to the varieties of love, Birds Without Wings delivers the hideous violence of mechanised warfare. Its 100-page centrepiece, in which Karatavuk (Blackbird) recounts the terror, squalor and fitful heroism of the Gallipoli campaign, will have critics reaching for their War and Peace. In truth, de Bernières . . . is too centrifugal and carnivalesque a novelist for the Tolstoy comparison. However, he makes of the carnage a mesmerising patchwork of horror, humour and humanity.

Scotland on Sunday

[Birds Without Wings] bears de Bernières' literary hallmarks — vast emotional breadth, dazzling characterisation, rich historical detail (and gruesome battle scenes), swerving between languid sensuality and horror, humour and choking despair.

The New Zealand Herald

This is one of the great novels about the early 20th century and the emerging modern world, an epic of human disaster, on small and grand scales. Against the background of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, armies march, populations flee, and mountains of corpses lie rotting, the landscapes of horror brought fully to our imaginations in terms so visceral we could weep. . . . One of the most profound and moving books you're likely to read.

The Globe and Mail (Canada) - Camilla Gibb

[A] rich, mottled chorus, an amalgam of subplots that weave and complement each other in such a way that the town itself might be better called the central character. . . . For those who do not devour it immediately, Birds Without Wings will sit as great epics sit, on one's shelf demanding to be read, making one feel irresponsible and guilty, provoking resolutions of 'must read this before death.' Do read it before you die. It would be a terrible thing to have missed a work of such importance, beauty and compassion.

The New Zealand Herald

This is one of the great novels about the early 20th century and the emerging modern world, an epic of human disaster, on small and grand scales. Against the background of the collapsing Ottoman Empire, armies march, populations flee, and mountains of corpses lie rotting, the landscapes of horror brought fully to our imaginations in terms so visceral we could weep. . . . One of the most profound and moving books you're likely to read.

Author Blurb A. S. Byatt
Louis de Bernières is in the direct line that runs through Dickens and Evelyn Waugh. . .he has only to look into his world, one senses, for it to rush into reality, colours and touch and taste.

Reader Reviews

Maureen

Good story but maybe a little too long
I really enjoyed this book. I liked that each chapter was a little story about the various characters in the book (and there are many). My only complaint was that it did get a little long and tedious especially towards the end. I had to keep ...   Read More

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Beyond the Book

Background: The Ottoman Empire ruled large tracts of central Europe for about 450 years, until it was defeated by the Turkish nationalists in 1918.  The Turks were led by Mustafa Kemal, whose story forms just one of the many threads in this tapestry of a book.  Although I obviously cannot endorse either, I found these sites provided useful background reading about the Ottoman Empire and Mustafa Kemal.
Infoplease.com
Ataturk.com

The excerpt, chosen by the publisher, is from Chapter 27. It's well chosen because it reads much like a short story in its own right; and doesn't give away any key plot details that would spoil your enjoyment of the book before ...

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