When a country or its part is thrown into any armed conflict, the war and its aftermath can have life-changing consequences for its people. Homes are destroyed, cities turn to ashes, livelihoods are lost, and families are torn apart. In Red Birds, Muhammad Hanif talks about the absurdity of some wars while exploring the life in a refugee camp. 

In the opening chapter, we are introduced to Ellie, a US fighter jet pilot, who finds himself stranded in the desert after an unsuccessful bombing mission. He is unable to contact the base and is left with a survival kit definitely not meant for a long desert stay.

They give you a 65-million-dollar machine to fly, with the smartest bomb that some beam rider in Salt Lake City took years to design, you burn fuel at the rate of fifteen gallons per second and if you get screwed they expect you to survive on four energy biscuits and an organic smoothie. (Ellie)

In the same desert. we are taken to Camp where we meet Momo, a 15-year-old boy, and his pet Mutt. Momo lives with his mother and father. He has an elder brother Ali who went missing after going for a job at the Hangar, another US facility. After Ali goes missing, Momo makes it his life’s mission to bring his brother back and the only way believes he will be able to do that is through a rescue mission for which he isn’t ready yet.

Dis-hearted with traditional education, Momo starts looking to Forbes for strategies to become rich. His daydreaming about becoming rich enough to own yachts and have dressed waiters serving him food is what keeps him alive and hopeful in a place where all hope seems to be lost. He hatches several schemes to become rich quick. From starting a Sands Global company which will supply all the sand for cement manufacturing to a Falcons for Ethical Hunting organization which will sell kites disguised as falcons to rich Arab Sheikhs, Momo keeps brainstorming.

Momo had been training a kite to hunt. He thought that since a kite already looks and acts like a falcon, all it needed was a nudge, some motivation, and some on-the-job training. He had been starving the kite to motivate her. Starving a scavenging bird for business purposes is something only humans can think of. So Momo got his idea that if he could train this kite to hunt, he could sell it to the sheikhs when they come around next hunting season. Momo was thinking that he would trade this misery on wings for a Range Rover Vogue. (Mutt)

Momo’s father used to be a logistics officer for USAID and it is through him that he meets an American researcher whom the family calls Lady Flowerbody. She wants to research the Teenage Muslim Mind and she chooses Momo and the camp dwellers as her subjects. Through a number of coincidences, Ellie ends up in the same camp which he was meant to destroy.

It is in these two Americans, Momo sees hope and starts planning to use them to get his brother back from Americans in the good old tit-for-tat style.

I think that the author has three goals in mind, the first is to communicate the grief and hopelessness that people forced to live in shelter camps go through as they navigate their miserable lives. Momo’s parents have lost their son and it is a loss they cannot forget, it haunts them day and night. While the father chooses not to discuss his son’s disappearance, the mother finds solace in loneliness and her tears. Thus they all lead isolated lives while living together.

The second goal seemed to prove the absurdity of wars that are meant for nothing but to enable some people to profit off it. The third goal was to communicate the idea of red birds-symbols for people we lose in a shooting or murder. These people always live with us like birds, fluttering around. While we try hard to move on, we never can. ”All we need to do is to look up and there they are”.  The author succeeds at relaying these opinions across and that through powerful language which moved me as a reader.

The POV chapter style served the narrative well and the setting was appropriate. Although some chapters did nothing to help drive the story forward, most of the plot was well-structured with the chapters gradually adding new information about the characters and their lives, hopes, histories, and demons.  The characters were believable and their thoughts described very well what they were going through as part of an isolated community in the middle of the desert. Mutt has a very important part of the narrative since its chapters  are full of humor and act as sugar-coating to the grief filled chapters of human characters. 

We used to have art for art’s sake; now we have war for the sake of war. (Ellie)

If I didn’t bomb some place, how would she (Lady Flowerbody) save that place? If I didn’t rain fire from the skies, who would need her to douse that fire on the ground?…If I didn’t take out homes who would need shelter? If I didn’t obliterate cities, how would you get to set up refugee camps? Where would all the world’s empathy go? … You don’t hold candlelight vigils for those dying of old age and neglect. You need fireworks to ignite human imagination. (Ellie)

However, there was a sense of un-fulfillment which I felt once I had finished reading the novel. While I did not expect an uplifting ending, I felt there was no closure. It seems abrupt as if all the author’s effort went in vain when he ended the novel. 

Rating: 3.5/5