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Birdsong Paperback – 7 Jul 1994
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Readers who are entranced by sweeping historical sagas will devour Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks' drama set during the first world war. There's even a little high-toned erotica thrown into the mix to convince the doubtful. The book's hero, a 20-year-old Englishman named Stephen Wraysford, finds his true love on a trip to Amiens in 1910. Unfortunately, she's already married, the wife of a wealthy textile baron. Wrayford convinces her to leave a life of passionless comfort to be at his side, but things do not turn out according to plan. Wraysford is haunted by this doomed affair and carries it with him into the trenches of the war. Birdsong derives most of its power from its descriptions of mud and blood, and Wraysford's attempt to retain a scrap of humanity while surrounded by it. There is a simultaneous description of his present-day granddaughter's quest to read his diaries, which is designed to give some sense of perspective; this device is only somewhat successful. Nevertheless, Birdsong is a rewarding read, an unflinching war story and a touching romance.
"Magnificent - deeply moving" (Sunday Times)
"With Birdsong Faulks has produced a mesmerizing story of love and war... This book is so powerful that as I finished it I turned to the front to start again" (Sunday Express)
"Amazing... I have read it and re-read it and can think of no other novel for many, many years that has so moved me or stimulated in me so much reflection on the human spirit" (Daily Mail)
"An overpowering and beautiful novel... Ambitious, outrageous, poignant, sleep-disturbing, Birdsong is not a perfect novel, just a great one" (Simon Schama New Yorker)
"Engrossing, moving, and unforgettable" (The Times)
Top customer reviews
Plenty has been written in reviews about the parts that make up the bulk of the novel - Stephen and his comrades on the front line in rural France - so I won't dwell on that, except to say that for me, personally, the fact the tragedy and carnage was described more in blood, guts and numbers, that although the victims were presented as characters we became acquainted with fairly well but did not get time to 'fall in love' with, was a good thing. I read this knowing it was about the waste and futility (which is what hit me most after, and hadn't struck me as much before, reading it) and devastation of WWI because I wanted to know and felt I needed to know, but when reading for pleasure/stimulation/culture/horizon expansion, I don't want to have to book counselling sessions for PTSD afterwards. So the marginally reduced emphasis on the emotion of it all suited me just fine.
Critics have slammed the first part ('France, 1910') as flat, superficial and filled with characters who, at best, are unlikeable, and at worst (for a novel), insubstantial and provoke total indifference in the reader. After finishing this chapter I agreed with them at first (I wanted to slap Stephen for what appeared to be alpha-male sexual harassment of Isabelle, and to slap her harder for succumbing to it). But by the time I was a third or half of the way through the novel, I realised this was probably deliberate and worked very well: the selfish, superficial, image-conscious snobbery of pre-war upper-class society was designed to sit in sharp contrast with the wartime terrors, where 'what the neighbours think' and two-faced disdain disguised as social etiquette became almost risible alongside the daily fight for survival, where the characters suddenly became more concerned about getting oxygen in tunnels than in mixing with the 'right people'. The contrast works well, so if the first part starts to annoy or bore you, stick with it: it'll increase the impact of subsequent parts. Rather like allowing yourself to freeze outside without a coat so you can drink in the warmth of a centrally-heated house you know you're going to step into, and truly appreciate the sensation.
Many reviews have criticised the 'Elizabeth' chapters, when we fast-forward to the 1970s from WWI and meet Stephen's granddaughter, who never knew him - a late-30s, independent, elegant, unconventional, professional woman who would sit nicely in a chick-lit work set in the 21st century. Many readers say these parts were unnecesssary, added nothing and lacked any real intrigue or dramatic twists.
Here, I totally disagree. I LOVED the 'Elizabeth' chapters, and my only criticism of the novel is that they should have been longer, and/or more frequent. She gave us a modern-day voice and a temporary respite from the mass killing and maiming. She was your coffee break between studying, your lunch hour in a job that, although you enjoy, is demanding and stressful. She provided a lively contrast, with what at first was only a vague passing interest in WWI but no particular passion, but which started to become a real source of fascination to her as she attempted to make sense of her own DNA (who hasn't been intrigued by our family trees?) Elizabeth's modern, middle-class problems, likeable flakiness combined with intelligence and sophistication, provided a much-needed and very real feminine voice among the male-dominated cast of the WWI chapters. Although the novel is supposed to be about what happened on the front line with real people becoming victims - implying that the war scenes are actually its essence and the rest only decoration so, unless the war chapters were your favourite bits, there was little point in reading it at all - it was Elizabeth who made it more readable than ever. Stephen's granddaughter discovers his past at the same time as we do, and her search ups the reader's intrigue into Stephen's own story. It's Elizabeth who makes the novel enjoyable for a female audience, especially one who does not often pick up an historic work of fiction or one about armed conflict. I partly believe this was Faulks' intention: Stephen's grown-up granddaughter is added to expand the audience he wanted to capture.
If Sebastian Faulks were to start a rewrite now, I'd say to him, introduce Elizabeth earlier. If her chapters are going to be short, give her more of them, for all the above reasons.
If you're not sure about reading a novel set in WWI, Birdsong is a good introduction to fiction on the subject, and it's largely Elizabeth who helps break you into it. I'm surprised to be one of the few reviewers who feel this way, but well done to the author for introducing her and enabling her to make the subject accessible to female readers whose choice of book is normally less gritty and more 'girlie'. She was an excellent choice of character.
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