BOOK REVIEW: Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif

I will admit that until a copy of Red Birds was sent to me to review, I only had vaguely heard of Mohamed Hanif. I generally manage to keep on top of things but occasionally there’s a whole new amazing writer/band/director that comes on to my radar a decade after everyone else’s. Hanif is one of those guys, and I’ve already planned to read his other books.

All that to say that I have nothing to compare Red Birds to. Is it better than ‘A Case of Exploding Mangoes’? Or not as good? I have no idea. All I know is that it is pretty brilliant.

There is such energy in the prose, it makes for a great, bouncy ride. It’s the literary equivalent of a Spike Jonze edit. It’s colourful, humorous, multidimensional and surprising.

Set in an unnamed middle-eastern country, Red Birds tells the story of Capt Ellie, an American soldier who crashes his plane in the desert and ends up being rescued by the very camp he was meant to bomb. Ellie is saved by businessman-in-the-making Momo – a spoiled teenager who is on an ongoing quest for his older brother who disappeared – and his dog, Mutt.

Momo, Ellie and Mutt share the narration of most of the book; and even though the style remains the same throughout – witty and satirical – their voices are different. Behind Momo’s braggart, no-nonsense character there is a teenager mourning the loss of his brother. Ellie’s mounting and comical despair to get out of the camp is doubled with curiosity as he also embarks on the quest for Ali. As for Mutt, he is very philosophical for a dog and will utter the deep truths in the simplest way:

“It’s a well known fact that those under assault from outsiders take it out on their own. The opium eater gets kicked in the bazaar and since he can’t hit back, he comes home and kicks his kids. Big, rich nations get a bloody nose in far-off countries and start slashing milk money for poor babies at home. You can’t bring an enemy plane down with a stone, but you can smash your neighbour’s window.”

The horrors of war, if present, are only briefly evocated, the situation having gone on for so long that the R and the E from the refugee camp banner have long fallen off. War is part of the day-to-day routine and only the odd incident is worth mentioning. But when it is mentioned it hits like a punch, and hurts:

“There was nothing more to be done here, no alarms calling for survivors to be taken by ambulances. A father was standing over his dead boy, wailing.”

Most of the book’s tone is comical, witty. The addition of slightly ridiculous characters such as Momo’s father, referred to as “sissy” by Ellie and described as a “thin, wiry man with a neatly trimmed moustache, like a struggling jazz singer who hasn’t landed a gig in years” or the purposeless social worker, nicknamed Lady Flowerbody, who encapsulates the pointless money spending of war, contribute greatly to this.

After Ellie is rescued by Momo’s family and is on the verge of starvation having not eaten for eight days, he waits for Momo’s mother to provide some dinner, which she proceeds to prepare extremely slowly, while his father rambles on about paperwork and administration.

The absurd scene is reminiscent of the iconic Twin Peaks one in which Dale Cooper is gravely wounded and unassisted by an old member of hotel staff trying to give him a glass of milk. Aside from being laugh-out-loud funny, this sums up a lot of the absurdity of this war.

In the second part of the book Momo, his mother and Ellie finally break into the camp’s mysterious hangar – the last place they saw Ali, which shelters the odd floating shadow, bright lights, the occasional smell and their hope of seeing him again.

The book’s finale takes on a deeper, sadder tone through the voice of Momo’s mother, and is accompanied by her musings on the significance of life and the purpose of God, giving the book additional depth and a sorrowful ending.

“With the birds come long forgotten memories; the boys’ insomniac cries in their childhood, piping hot bread tasted in Kandahar, groping in the back of a yellow bus, dreams of brown beauties dancing in the desert, fat dads cuddling their babies and jumping on trampolines, ball games in the afternoon drizzle. What are people if not the sum total of their memories?”

A great read, funny, satirical and moving.

Red Birds is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.

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Mohammed Hanif

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Mohammed Hanif was born in Okara, Pakistan. He graduated from the Pakistan Air Force Academy as Pilot Officer but subsequently left to pursue a career in journalism. His first novel, A Case of Exploding Mangoes, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Novel. His second novel, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, was shortlisted for the 2012 Wellcome Prize. He has written the libretto for a new opera Bhutto. He writes regularly for the New York Times, BBC Urdu, and BBC Punjabi. He currently splits his time between Berlin and Karachi.

Reviewed by Barbara F Jones

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