Louis de Bernieres has crafted a glorious piece of work in Birds Without Wings.
This is the story of a small community, Anatolia in what is now Turkey. The village is filled with eccentric, unforgettable characters. The story spans the years from roughly 1895-1920 as the Ottoman Empire comes to an end and Mustafa Kemal comes into power, installing democracy in the new country of Turkey. Chapters that focus on Kemal's life during this time, from boyhood to manhood, are interspersed with the lion's share of the chapters that focus on the village. This juxtaposition creates drama, as the reader knows that the life of Kemal will eventually have a profound effect on the villagers.
As he did with Corelli's Mandolin, de Bernieres explores the theme of how individual lives are impacted by the huge, sweeping tides of history. More than any author I know, he makes me consider what life is like for people in war torn countries -- how people are just trying to go about their lives, make a living, carefor their families, fight against illness, when outside political forces/events land on them, changing everything. For me, it conjures an image of a child stomping on an ant colony. It is a profoundly poignant topic.
Two of the primary characters are boys who are best friends as the story begins. One of their father's is a potter who makes the boys matching clay bird whistles. These whistles are "birds without wings". The whistles are a metaphor, and the reader is invited to consider whether the villagers themselves are birds without wings.
I highly recommend this novel. Besides the fact that it is just a beautifully told tale, it's an accessible way to learn about that period of Turkish history, and it seems that understanding that history is useful to understanding today's political events in the region.
I recommend that readers keep a log of characters as they are introduced, with a note to help you remember who is who. By the time you get half-way through, the characters will be familiar enough to you that you will not longer need your cheat-sheet, but it is very helpful as you start out. There are just so many characters that, if you are like me, you will get lost without some help in the beginning.