The people who remained in this place have often asked themselves why it was that Ibrahim went mad. I am the only one who knows, but I have always been committed to silence, because he begged me to respect his grief, or, as he also put it, to take pity upon his guilt.
–Louis De Bernieres - Birds Without Wings - c. 2004 - pg1
I’m not really sure where to start with this review, because this book covers so much. It is set in a small village in Anatolia, in the finally few years of the Ottoman Empire, just before the forced separation of Turks from Greeks, and Muslims from Christian. There are a multitude of characters, sometimes they tell their own stories in first person narration, other times a third person narrator details their lives as they intertwine and grow apart.
The style of writing is very, very readable. But it isn’t gripping. Instead it is a story that you can read and become engrossed in, but never have the sense that it is a page-turner. You are never racing to find out what happens next. Which is a good thing, as it allows you the chance to pay attention to the beautiful language and descriptions on the page.
De Bernieres is probably most famous for his Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and this books deals with the same general part of the world, although it is set slightly before that novel. It also has a shared character, which I didn’t realise until about half way through, others probably figured it out much earlier.
The book is big. An epic, sprawling all over the history of Turkey, and with plenty to saw about people, nationalism and politics, and all the horrors that they can bring. And there is so much in it that I was unfamiliar with I almost felt as though I should take out a history book and read that at the same time. But I didn’t, de Bernieres makes everything understandable. Well, for a certain value of understandable I suppose, and while you do have to pay attention it is so well written that it isn’t a slog to get through.