Article published on March 3, 2015.
The main reason that Birds Without Wings is my best book of the 21st century is
Louis de Bernières’ telling of the story of the Ottoman Empire. The novel begins
in 1900 in a small town called Eskibahçe, on Turkey’s south-west coast and spans
World War I and the Turkish war of independence that ended in 1923. The ability
to convey this history alongside a beautiful narrative is de Bernières’ greatest skill.
Louis de Bernières story telling moved me. Scenes of anguish brought me to tears,
imagery from the front lines put me off my lunch and one character’s humility
increased my enjoyment of being at home with a book. I am always happy when a
book teaches me about a history, culture and conflict of which I am otherwise ignorant. Birds Without Wings does this in a way that is not patronising to the reader. In fact, the way that
de Bernières concentrates on individual stories within this narrative distracts you from the
great history of the novel. The narrative of Philothei from her birth, through her childhood, her friendship and love of Ibrahim, her wait for him to return from war and then her final choice is woven throughout the book. This personal story has greater implications for the story.
A central concern in Birds Without Wings is religion and the use/abuse of its lessons. Philothei and Ibrahim are one pair of characters that are doomed to be split apart due to the difference in their religion. At the beginning of the novel in Eskibahçe, religion is a minor detail in the character’s lives. Religious customs are referred to quite flippantly as interchangeable. However, by the end religion has been used to justify the killing of thousands, as the war is declared Holy, and displaces countless more.
Another reason this book qualifies for consideration here is the imagery, poetic motifs and the mythological scenery that de Bernières’ deploys. I asked myself several times on reading this book why this poetic title had been used for a book that in parts is horrific and gruelling. But through all the death, political and personal atrocities the reader is constantly brought back to the sun setting over the pine mountains of the idyllic city where small acts of kindness are displayed. “Then, after all that, the years go by, the mountains are levelled, the valleys rise, the rivers are blocked by sand and the cliffs fall into the sea.” And so de Bernières reminds the reader that human action is as inevitable as the forces of nature, both are relative and can be circular.
Roseann Campbell, London
Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières was first published by Vintage in 2004
POETRY: The Stairwell by Michael Longley
Walter Scott Prize longlist: The Undertaking by Audrey Magee
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