on 8 June 2014
I read this book after watching the play.
The story about war, determination, endurance, love, sacrifice and life does need to be told. It is not overtold in Sebastian Faulks' succinct prose and deft use of time shift which creates a rhythm that keeps you wanting to read on and which also gets the story told efficiently.
Ultimately optimistic, this book tells about some terrible times, remembered in optimistic times. Reading it in 2014 it makes you aware that those sorts of gruesome experiences of war are happening still and are unfortunately a completely viable proposition in our future.
It gets a 4 instead of a 5 from me for a reason I cannot pin down. Maybe it was to do with seeing the play.
on 27 January 2012
The book does actually start out as an "intensely romantic" love story. There are almost romance novel worthy (or, really, not being one to read romance novels, what I expect are romance novel worthy) scenes describing the illicit relationship of the main character, Stephen, with his host's wife. After the first section of the book, however, all romance departs as we are plunged into the grimy, depressing, and hopeless trenches of the First World War. The previous romance is barely alluded to; instead, we are swept up in the futile existence of British troops manning the trenches, digging tunnels for mines, and being blown up my enemy shells.
To the author's credit, these descriptions are so vivid that it is possible to imagine what war meant for the soldiers on the front lines. And most heartbreakingly, it is possible to imagine the enormous waste of human lives due to command ineptitude at the Battle of the Somme as wave after wave of young men slowly marched across no man's land to their inevitable demise. In that respect, the novel is not pretty. It is not romantic. It is intensely realistic. And that, perhaps, is what makes the novel worth reading. Because, as a character living fifty years later in the 1970s points out, even then we had already forgotten the wretchedness of trench warfare and the unspeakable horror the soldiers endured on a daily basis.
And so, Birdsong is not intensely romantic. There is romance at the beginning and the end, but it seems disjointed and almost indecent. Towards the end of the novel, one of the characters welcomes death because after what he has seen, he can't imagine going back to his wife and resuming a normal life. In a way, after reading the trench sequences, I thought the same thing: after all that death and destruction, how can the author describe, and how can I imagine, happiness and romance again? Maybe the point is that we have to go on living, have to keep hoping, and have to create our own opportunities for happiness. Whatever the moral is, this book is not a romance. It is a war story through and through. And as a war story, for people who want to know what soldiers actually experienced, it may be worth the read.
I pulled this off the shelf to read on a trip to Ypres last week. It was recommended to me by my wife (whose grandfather was killed in the Battle of the Somme), and I found it to be a moving, passionate and illuminating book. Before reading it, I thought I had a vague sense of what trench warfare might have been like, but I'd had no idea about the tunnels that extended from the trenches under no-mans land, the digging in the dirt and the laying of mines under enemy positions. Life (and death) in the trenches is portrayed so vividly here that you'll never think of this war in the same way again.
Or, indeed, any war: Faulks describes the killing of men in a dispassionate, almost offhand, way that emphasises the capriciousness of fate when a life can be snuffed out in an instant (one soldier is killed because of a misplaced sandbag, for example). This reaches its climax in the account of July 1, 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, with the horrific description of the lines of advancing British infantry being mown down by German machine guns, and the survival of some soldiers to tell the tale.
Faulks interweaves the main story with a preamble from 1910, and an account of a young woman in 1978 trying to find out more about her grandfather's part in the war. Personally, I found this section to be the least satisfactory, as I didn't think she'd been brought to life as a real character (at least, not in the same way as her grandfather). Faulks continues to use his dispassionate approach in this section, but the result is that minor plot twists and characters are not handled in a believable fashion.
Finally, I thought I detected some minor grammatical ambiguities in the text, particularly on p41, where "Berard was waiting in a hat", which juxtaposes awkwardly with the next sentence, in which his wife "was already installed in [...] a flat-bottomed boat". I don't think I'd be so sensitive to this kind of thing if I hadn't so enjoyed Faulks's excellent parody of Dan Brown (e.g. "he watched his fingers work with sallow eyes") in his "Pistache". But, overall, "Birdsong" is a fine book that provokes all kinds of thoughts on time, death, bravery, family and love.
on 4 September 2013
This book is beautiful! It flows well and the alternation between the 2 different character perspectives makes the story all the more exciting and builds the suspense, preventing the story from becoming boring. As someone who doesn't have an in depth knowledge of the war, I was not overwhelmed by the war element of the story. In fact I now find myself wanting to know more.
on 16 January 2001
Birdsong is set during the 1st World War and despite being a story, its historial and geographical content is accurate.
It tells the story of Stephen Wraysford and the events that shape his life. Starting in pre-war France and moving on in time, it deals with Stephen's experiences in love and war. The novel incorporates Stephen's friendship with Michael Weir, a fellow soldier and also includes the stories of other soldiers that fight alongside them.
This is a graphic and detailed novel. Faulks describes in detail the events that these soldiers lived through on a daily basis. Despite the disturbing nature of some of these scenes, the novel is so beautifully and cleverly written that it is compulsive.
Faulks ties in the events of Stephen Wraysford during the First World War to modern life with the quest of Stephen's Grandaughter, Elizabeth, to trace her past and seek out what happened to her Grandfather. She does this when she discovers the journals that her Grandfather wrote during the war.
The novel is structured so that it moves forward and back in time and reminds the reader of the benefits we have today because of the sacrifices made by so many men.
It is a poignant and moving novel and one which brings home the realities and the true atrocities that the soldiers of the First World War suffered. Once read, it will never be forgotten.