The Bird Tattoo by Dunya Mikhail

It’s 2014 and a city in northern Iraq has been taken over by an extremist religious organisation. Helen and hundreds of women face horrors beyond their worst nightmares as they are sold off to men who bid for them in an auction.

Driven to find out what happened to her husband and escape the organisation’s control, she hurtles headlong into a dangerous mission.

Read if you like: historical fictions set in Iraq, books about atrocities women face, stories of resilience and freedom, themes of religious extremism & war

Dunya Mikhail’s story is set in a society that, at first glance, could only be borrowed from a dystopian premise. But soon you learn how it mirrors the real world with its depiction of skewed political systems and gender inequalities.

This is not an easy read. The writing isn’t too descriptive. And yet, the themes that are woven into the plot are unsettling to think of.

There’s almost a matter-of-fact tone to the narrative, so much so that Helen’s character voice (as she is narrating her story) doesn’t seem emotional.

A distance is created (intentionally or not) between the reader and the story being narrated. And I think that’s what makes this historical fiction a bit easier to process.

You’d need trigger warnings for sexual assault, kidnapping, death, trauma, and loss of a loved one. The author also explores the consequences of religious brainwashing through the storylines of several male characters who are forced to serve the organisation and spread its ideology.

In this, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale meets Nehmat Sadat’s The Carpet Weaver to give voice to people who are suppressed by the society they live in.

Although the story is largely character-driven, I couldn’t connect with any of the characters. And I think that has something to do with the writing.

There are chapters that show what Helen’s life looked like before and how she got married to Elias. But I still wouldn’t say that her characterisation strikes a chord.

What kept me hooked to the book was the premise and the promise of better times for the characters. I read it in two sittings; it is that gripping!

While Helen is the main character, the storytelling also branches out to chronicle how the other characters are faring. So it’s not just her struggle against the system.

Speaking of, there are many admirable characters in the book. Despite the dreary nature of it all, their actions inspire and reinforce your faith in humanity.

As the synopsis guarantees, The Bird Tattoo is in fact a book that will remain in your mind for ages. I’m just not sure I’d recommend it to everyone because of the traumatising topics it deals with.

If you’re ready to give it a go, try the audiobook. It makes the reading experience so much more striking.

Note – I received an ALC of this book from in exchange for an honest review.

Published by Meera Nair

A 27 year-old freelance Content Writer, who spends all her free time ensconced in the pages of a book or writing to her heart's content about topics that excite the creative spirit in her.

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