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Louis de Bernières (Knopf)

Birds Without Wings

vs. Harbor

Lorraine Adams (Knopf)

Judged by Pitchaya Sudbanthad

Throughout the past two millennia, the fight has been protracted and messy, round after round. There’s Islam at one corner and Christianity at the other, and when the two religions clash—to adopt an old African saying—the grass gets trampled. These two books attempt to tell the story of that grass.

In Harbor, Adams introduces us to the struggles of Algerian stowaways newly arrived to Boston. Having found jobs and shelter, they drink at bars and have callous sex with American women but cannot break off from their past, and eventually find themselves under U.S. government surveillance.

Birds Without Wings takes us to an Ottoman town, at first as idyllic as any in a National Geographic profile. Before the town itself can explode on its own Christian and Muslim tension, World War I arrives.

While Adams has written a topical book that illustrates the difficulty of knowing the exact truth in a war of suspicions, I lean towards de Bernières as a storyteller. His book has the backdrop of 20th-century war and genocide, but he tells the story with a keen sense for fables. Having spent time in Colombia, de Bernières is a confessed fan of Gabríel Gárcia Marquez and magic realism, and the influence is apparent, but he doesn’t trip into pastiche. This is a humane work, and it shows in the way de Bernières writes about his characters. Numbering in the dozens, they range from a beautiful, doomed girl to a benevolent landlord who condemned his adulterous wife to stoning. His focus on them is intense and vivid. As the conflict in the Levant grows, the characters make individual decisions outside of their religion and nationalism, both of which take a turn from being abstract and vestigial into being, ultimately, brutal. As the town falls apart, de Bernières’s characters hold; I felt like I had seen them the way he had. Birds wins on this accomplishment.


Judge: Pitchaya Sudbanthad
Age: 28
Types of books you tend to read frequently:
Types of books you rarely read:
Instruction manuals.
Favorite book of all time:
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders.