The Bird Tattoo: A Novel by Dunya Mikhail

The Bird Tattoo: A Novel by Dunya Mikhail

This novel devastated me. From its start to its end, I could not look away, though I wanted to put it down so many times, needed to put it down so many times for my own peace of mind. The pain of the characters was so real and tangible that I felt if I put down the book I was doing them an injustice. If I could — and I did — put down this book, that is proof I am privileged enough as to be able to switch off their suffering. And that really is an important point here because the subjects of this story and their histories is not a thing of the past. Mikhail’s tale is not a fiction, but the reality of a several thousand women in the world today.

The Bird Tattoo is about suffering and war, and what happens to women and children in times and places of war. The main character is a young wife and mother, a Yazidi woman who is kidnapped from her home in Iraq and sold into slavery, to be passed over and over again as an unwilling wife among the Islamic militants who have taken over her country. In her agonizing wait for rescue and her journey to freedom, both she and the reader encounter other women and children who are enslaved — and the men who enslave them. The conflict that the novel is premised is on is not made explicit; it doesn’t need to be. What is important is that it is contemporary and could be one of so many that are happening right now. That is Mikhail’s point in fact.

You are reading the words of someone’s life right now.

Some of the men who rule this cruel war-torn world are as expected: cruel and indifferent. Others are kind, in relative terms. Each are trapped within a terror not of their own making, the terror of states and governments bent on power and hatred. Some of the women are equally as surprising; some have developed Stockholm Syndrome, some are defeated and have given up, others are defiant. They are prisoners all the same. They, like the men, exist at the whims of others — for them, at the whim of their male masters, their new husbands. There are children too, some of the women are not women at all, but are children.

The novel is about the trust and the lack of trust between these individuals. It is gut-wrenchingly sad, but it is also hopeful. It is about resilience of the human soul and the human drive to survive. It is about resilience of humaneness and the power of kindness.

The Bird Tattoo is like so many classic novels (indeed, I think it is destined for that category) in the vein of Elie Wiesel’s Night or Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation: necessarily painful to read. The pain the reader will feel is the liminal ritual, the necessary rite of passage that allows us to recognize hope and the privilege of being alive and safe. Books like these make us thankful for the peace in our lives.

Books like these also inspire us to action. That is the manifestation of hope.

If there is one book you read this year, read this one.

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