Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernieres Secker and Warburg $220 Birds Without Wings touches all the epic themes: love and war, the danger of moral certainty and the paradoxes of the human condition. It also bears de Bernieres' literary signatures: vast emotional breadth, dazzling characterisation, rich historical detail, gruesome battle scenes, and a swerve between languid sensuality and horror, humour and creeping melancholy. It follows some of the inhabitants of Eskibahce, literally the Garden of Eden, a town in southwest Turkey at the turn of the 20th century. Christians, Muslims, Armenians and Greeks co-exist, bound by history, inter-marriage and friendship, until all is disrupted by the first world war. de Bernieres says he wanted to write 'a book with no goodies or baddies', so the flaws of the good citizens of Eskibahce are exposed alongside their virtues. They can stone an alleged adulterer, Tamara, wife of Rustem Bey, their modern-thinking rural landlord, 'with gleeful cruelty', and yet band together when they are threatened. Rustem Bey, afflicted by an aching loneliness, takes a Circassian mistress, the indulgent Leyla, who 'plays the oud delightfully' and seduces Bey with garlic orgies. Their poignant relationship is just one of those explored by de Bernieres, who paints characters that haunt long after the book is put down. There's the beautiful Philothei, a Christian with an 'angel's eyes' who has to wear an 'exiguous veil' as she reduces the men to salivating wrecks. She is devotedly pursued by her childhood Muslim sweetheart, Ibrahim the goatherd, who tragically becomes Ibrahim the mad. There's the garrulous Iskander the Potter and Abdulhamid Hodja, the imam, in love with Nilufer, a beautiful horse with green ribbons in her mane. Religion unites rather than divides. Muslim and Christian women are like sisters, their lives inextricably linked and interwoven. They make promises 'by the Beard of the Prophet and the Hem of the Virgin's Gown'. Parallel to the unravelling of their lives, de Bernieres charts the spectacular rise to power of Mustafa Kemal (later known as Ataturk, father of modern Turkey), as war looms. Father Kristoforos, the Christian priest, portends the grim days ahead with nightmares of God dying. As the war gathers momentum and the men are sent away, Eskibahce withers. Yet even amid the battlefields of Gallipoli, there is redemption. The soldiers may be 'covered in corpse-slime' but when the Franks (Allies) and the Turks meet as men rather than as enemies in no-man's land, 'everything changed between us and [we] no longer hated each other'. But 'after this, the war became less holy', and what follows is tantamount to ethnic cleansing, with Turkish Christians expelled to Greece and Greek Turks sent to Turkey. As the Christians were the doctors and merchants, the thriving town of Eskibahce falls apart. The Muslims are left 'helpless, no banker, no blacksmith, no shoemaker ... no merchant, no spicer. The community had lost its Christians and their drunken holy days and the joy'. Those left live 'amid so much absence', and villages are transformed to ghostly husks. Despite the rawness of the content, de Bernieres excels in his inventive vocabulary, made-up proverbs - 'he who seeks shade under red pines gets shat upon' - and kaleidoscopic prose. You sense his enjoyment through the writing (well, he did have a decade to perfect it) and his own idiosyncrasies shine through. A friendly Italian captain Lampedusa is stationed at Eskibahce (de Bernieres obviously has a soft spot for charming Italian officers), but roundly lambastes Britain's then-prime minister Lloyd George, who is called, among other names, a 'f***wit'. Ultimately a novel about the constrictions of being human, hemmed in by the trammels of nationalism and religion, Birds Without Wings is a literary feast. 'For birds with wings ... fly where they will and they know nothing ... But we are always confined to earth ... Because we have no wings we are pushed into struggles and abominations that we did not seek,' de Bernieres writes.