Birds Without Wings – Book Review

By: Louis de Bernieres

My Rating: 4.5/5 Stars — Genre: Historical Fiction — N. of Pages: 554

This is the second time I have read this book. I chose to reread it because I had such fond memories of the book, and I wanted to include it on my blog. I thought it would be best to reread it in order to give it a proper review.

Why I initially read this book:

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I love historical fiction novels, and my background is Greek, and this book is about Greeks living in the Ottoman Empire during the early 1900s. Therefore, it suited my interests very well. My sister had also read it and loved it. I had known of Louis de Bernieres because of his famous novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, that was eventually turned into a Hollywood movie. That novel was also a great read; however, the film did not do the book justice. Therefore, since I liked the author, it had great reviews, and it fit into my interests, I thought I had to read it.

The theme of this novel:

I believe the overall theme of this book was innocence. The innocence of a small village town in eastern Anatolia (modern-day Turkey), the innocence of regular people disconnected from the world’s politics, and the innocence of children. The book is mostly set in a small village that, for hundreds of years, Christians and Muslims lived in harmony with Greeks, Armenians and Turks until the world’s leaders arbitrarily told them that they were now enemies. Muslims would pray to the Virgin Mary; Christians would go into Mosque’s to pray. Christain’s allowing their daughters to marry Muslim men, Muslim women being best friends with Christians. This is what this little town was like, and it represents what so many towns in Greece and Turkey were like until the war tore them apart.

A brief overview of this book:

As mentioned above, this novel was mostly set in a small town in Western Anatolia called Eskibahce, at the end of the Ottoman Empire. It follows the lives of the Eskibahce villagers from the beginning of the 1900’s through small wars, the Great War, then the War of Independence and the Great Population Exchange. The story begins showing how harmoniously everyone in the village lived with each other regardless of religion and cultural background. You are introduced to many different characters at the beginning, and you follow each of these characters as they weave through major historical events. Louis de Bernieres creates incredibly interesting characters that are intriguing from the moment they are introduced. Each character tells their story in their own chapters, including the real historical figure Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. You see how the changes made by leading men in the world affect this little towns’ inhabitants. You gain an understanding of how the repercussions of people’s actions seem to affect the most vulnerable in society.

“…but in my opinion, as I have also said, everything that happened was made to do so by the great world.” (p 537)

About halfway through the book, de Bernieres focuses a lot of time discussing many of the Great War details, and I would say this is the only part in the book that I felt needed to be shortened. There were too many back-to-back chapters from Mustafa Kemal and one of the book’s main characters, Karatavuk explaining the details of the war from their perspectives. I think this part of the book may be difficult for some readers, who may not be as interested in history, to get through.

The end of the book focuses on the deportation of Greek Christians to Greece. The perspective is shown through the villagers of Eskibahce. The utter shock the Christian villagers face when they are told they are going to their country, Greece, which they have never lived in. The sadness that is bestowed on the Muslim villagers who tearfully say goodbye to their friends. You see the love these villagers had for one another when the Muslim men decide to follow their Greek friends to their destination to guarantee their safe passage. This is the love that is so rarely seen today between Christian and Muslims in most of the world. This chapter really brings the message of this book to light.

What I learned from this book:

I learned so much from this book that I don’t even know where to begin. The book’s overall message that few men make the decisions that affect millions is what impacted me the most. How simple words and decisions could change the course of history. These same men turn best friends into enemies just by using simple words. Many times in the book, we see a Greek Christian and an Ottoman Muslim love one another (friendly or romantic) despite being told by world leaders that they are now enemies.

“How strange that the world should change because of words, and words change because of the world” (p 287)

Another thing I learned is how quickly good human beings can turn evil. The atrocities that Greeks and Turks committed to one another after living among each other harmoniously for so many years is truly baffling. How does one hate another so much to commit such horrible crimes to innocent people? I will never understand that, but it is clear the humans are capable of awful things.

“Much of what was done was simply in revenge for identical atrocities…” (p 6)

Final thoughts on this book:

Overall this is a great book; I loved it the first time I read it, and I loved it the second time I read it. Louis de Bernieres writes so eloquently, including many important hidden messages. There were some messages I didn’t even catch the first time I read this book. I truly recommend that everyone reads this book, even if you aren’t into historical fiction because so many things that you learn from this book can be connected to today’s world. The only reason I did not give it a 5/5 is because the middle section was a bit hard to get through because of the vivid details of the war.

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