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.

Lost Souls of Leningrad: A Novel by Suzanne Parry

Lost Souls of Leningrad: A Novel
by Suzanne Parry

Lost Souls of Leningrad is a rare novel about the Russian civilian experience of World War II. Even rarer, its primary protagonist — and the character through whose eyes this experience is filtered — is a late-middle aged woman, a widow. (I am not a fan of romantic WWII novels that involve beautiful young women who all wear red lipstick, have perfectly coiffed hair, and fabulous clothes in the middle of wartime. Hello? Rations? I mean, COME ON.)

Parry’s novel possesses a more realistic portrayal of wartime. Its setting is Russia, a nation besieged by Nazis. There is a tightrope tension, drawn even tauter by dwindling supplies of food and medicine. Lost Souls of Leningrad does not romanticize war; events and experiences that other novels paint in sepia tone, Parry swathes in a more authentic grey. The sense of loss, a grieving for the world that was, is palpable in Lost Souls of Leningrad in a way that makes it refreshing as a novel of WWII.

The story revolves around an aging, widowed violinist and her teenaged granddaughter. But the novel is not about them alone. Lost Souls of Leningrad is a landscape of a European city at war. Parry reveals to the reader the swift and terrible death and decay of an urban place and its people when the trappings of civilization are ripped off by war. Food and the lack of it, water and the lack of it, the stench and the unavoidable abundance of it. Fear from all the dark corners, lives cast into darkness in the absence of street lights, electricity, law and order. The other characters are Russian soldiers, mothers, wives, and orphaned children. All of them are the lost souls of the title, each of them has lost something, whether a loved one or a parent, or simply their sense of security in ordered society that they once had, even if imperfect. Loss and grief, not only as a result of war, but through political upheaval, are themes that imbue the book. The novel draws a line between the time before and the time after, the time of war, and afterwards, even when war is over, there remains a division of before and after.

While the novel does not romanticize war, there are romantic threads in its storylines. There is love in this novel in various forms: nurturing and mothering love, parental love, innocent and childish love, romantic love, the kind of love that is weathered by life. While a defeating hopelessness pervades the novel (it is war, after all), there is also an uplift via its characters’ resilience. This strength manifests in many forms but most prominently through love and kindness.

As a historical fiction, it portrays a more social version of history than a military or political one. Readers should not expect dates or events, but an overall texture of life in wartime Russia. This is not a historical fiction that relies heavily on the facts of history, though the timeline of events does follow authentically in line with actual history; this is a novel about the human experience of war, lived and sensed through the skin, the eyes, the nose, the tongue.

This a beautifully written novel about surviving loss of different kinds and the love we need to do so.