Major Ellie is a fighter pilot who is shot down in the desert in an unnamed country. After several days, near to death, he finds shelter in the refugee camp he was sent to bomb. He is rescued by Momo, a young man who is eager to begin his career in entrepreneurship, even though he lives in a camp where there is nothing left to sell, or even steal.
Momo’s dog, Mutt, (who is shown rather more concern than Ellie, perhaps deservedly so) is a wise observer of all the goings-on in the camp, with a sound observation of Momo’s family, the major, and the woman Momo’s mother calls Lady Flowerbody, a western aid worker who is apparently conducting research there.
Narrating dog aside, this initially feels like a realist narrative with some nice satirical touches, like Momo’s use of business jargon gleaned from intermittent TV and the occasional copy of Forbes. Ellie realises the inadequacy of his cultural awareness training, Momo looks for ways to co-opt Lady Flowerbody to his schemes, his father continues to perform his duties for the military, even though they left and stopped paying him some time ago. Underlying it all is a sense of both grief and the relentless desire to survive, even in the most hopeless of circumstances.
Gradually, you realise that all is not all it seems. The mysterious Hangar, where Momo’s brother went to work and never returned, the absent military, some elements of Ellie’s story that don’t quite make sense, lead to an awareness that this is a world where all is not quite as it appears.
I really enjoyed the early part of the novel, the absurdist humour, the vivid characters. For me the end, where things should have moved faster, felt a little too drawn out. However I did find myself thinking about this book, and what it meant, for several days after I’d read it.
I received a copy of Red Birds from the publisher via Netgalley.
View Red Birds on Goodreads
Enjoyed this? Take a look at my review of Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, another novel which goes beyond realism to explore the refugee experience.