Rating: 4 stars
I think of Birds Without Wings as the wiser sibling to Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. I much preferred it and thought its lack of a central love story around which everything else flows made it a stronger book.
It was published 10 years after Captain Corelli. De Bernières has said he didn’t want to write Corelli twice, and he made so much money from the success of that book that he could buy himself some time.
For me, the book had a slow build up. It’s well crafted and researched, but I found the first half of the book a little slow as de Bernières developed the plot and characters. Once that had happened, though, it was a much better book. I could truly believe in the characters and I enjoyed the way they were written into the facts of history, bringing the things I had learnt at school about the Gallipoli campaign and the creation of modern Turkey to life. It was also interesting to gain a Turkish perspective on this part of history. I read the book straight after Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, as well, so I felt like I’d had a crash course in early 20th century Turkish/Greek history. Overall, the story is a human one, full of sorrow, laughter and farce, and explores the contradictions of what it is to be human.
I hadn’t read War and Peace when I read Birds Without Wings, but I’ve read reviews in The Guardian, The New York Times and The Independent that suggest de Bernières’ book is an attempt at a modern version of War and Peace, and that de Bernières has cited Tolstoy’s epic as a model for the book. I suppose. There’s war in it. There’s stuff about life continuing during war. There’s philosophising about war. There’s stuff about the ascent to power of Mustafa Kemal/Atatürk which is kind of similar to Napoleon’s trajectory in War and Peace.
It isn’t a modern War and Peace, though. No matter what de Bernières’ intention was.