three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
13-Nov-Dec-2004
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0

A-BirdsWithoutWingsIn 1900, the western Turkish village of Eskibahçe, like most of the Ottoman Empire, was home to a tolerant population of Turks, Greeks, and Armenians. Here, Ibrahim, a young Muslim, can fall in love with the Christian girl Philothei, and the religious leaders jokingly call each other infidels. Events from the outside world soon shatter this idyllic life. Mustafa Kemal comes to power, and enlists the young Muslim boys to fight for his honor; World War I takes young Karatavuk off to the battle of Gallipoli; Christians are expelled, Greeks and Turks shuttled away from their homes to honor national boundaries. Birds Without Wings presents the upheavals of the early 20th century through the personal struggles of the residents of one small town.
Knopf. 576 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 1400043417

Christian Science Monitor 4 of 5 Stars
"So much is remarkable about this novel, from the heft of its history to the power of its legends. … This epic about the tragedy of borders is likely to cross all borders, moving readers everywhere as it describes the harrowing cost of remaking faraway places in the image of our dreams." Ron Charles

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Birds Without Wings remains a quite astonishing, and compulsively readable, tour de force. … His subtly differentiated characters attach themselves to us and won’t let go: We come to care about them, and their deaths diminish us." Peter Green

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"Birds Without Wings is not without moments of humor, but atrocity haunts it. … Its insight into the darkest human desires is unerring and indelible." Connie Ogle

San Jose Mercury News 3.5 of 5 Stars
"De Bernières intended to write a War and Peace as much as he intended not to write another [Corelli’s Mandolin], and to his credit he succeeded in the latter and didn’t disgrace himself with his attempt at the former." Mark Johnson

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"An account of the changes the first third of the 20th century brings to a small Turkish village may not appeal to a mass audience, particularly without an overriding romance to leaven the tale. … De Bernières’ narrative doesn’t proceed with the irresistible, martial sweep of War and Peace; events seem like the product of chance and myriad small decisions made by individuals, rather than historical inevitability." Charles Solomon

Guardian (UK) 2.5 of 5 Stars
"In the last third of the book, the story loops away in distant meanders, like a river approaching the sea. In those chapters, I learned some words of Turkish but many more of English, such as immanitous, mommixity and phatic." James Buchan

Independent (UK) 1.5 of 5 Stars
"De Bernières is too fond of telling the reader what to think: it turns out that wars and nationalism are bad, religious tolerance and peace are good, sex and wine are more pleasant than celibacy and abstinence, and that the forms of religion matter less than the spirit behind them. Well I never." Robert Hanks

Critical Summary

The ten years since the runaway success of De Bernières’ Corelli’s Mandolin have provided ample time for reviewers to sharpen their pencils. But potshots at his new novel are scarce, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Critics applaud the author’s continued liberties with point of view, but the large cast of characters obscures the narrative focus; many don’t rise above one-note characterization. Other critics argue that the collective power of these voices, not the individual timbre, counts. Where Corelli’s Mandolin was a love story set against the backdrop of war, here the battlefield takes center stage. The Guardian claims that the Gallipoli set piece is "far beyond anything De Bernières has attempted or achieved up to now"—and if you’re willing to taste kadinbudu köfte or iç pilàv and other local flavors, you’ll enjoy the ride.

Also by the Author

Corelli’s Mandolin | Louis de Bernières (1994): A romance set against the invasion of Greece by Italian forces during World War II. This has become a regular selection by book groups, though the Bookmarks staff is at odds as to whether that honor is deserved.