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4.4 out of 5 stars
4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 17 January 2008
I read Birdsong about 14 years ago, when it was first published in paperback; it must have impressed me because it stayed on my bookshelf rather than being passed on. This second reading has reminded me why I kept it - it has to be one of the most haunting novels I've ever read, and it kept me reading well into the small hours! The early chapters deal with a love affair in which the author so clearly recreates the sense of overwhelming desire and reckless behaviour that accompanies true passion. This, however, is only the start of Stephen Wraysford's story, for we soon move on to his involvement as a young officer in the First World War and this, for me, is what makes the novel such an amazing work. Knowing that the fiction was based on real events, together with the vivid descriptions, makes the story so very moving. It's not just a chronicle of events though, Sebastian Faulks is a master of detail, which makes the readers feel they're actually there, in the mud of Flanders - there were times when I too held my breath and envisaged how the fear must have felt. The penultimate chapter was so moving, it reduced me to tears and this, for me, is unusual! Reading and remembering the words of old men from my childhood, it's hard to believe that little more than 20 years later, man embarked on a Second World War and, after both those events, it seems incredible that man has still not learned his lesson! I would urge everyone to read this novel, and if you've already done so, then read it again!
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on 25 August 2004
This a such a powerful war novel.
I will justify this statement, not by repeating the things other people have said but through highlighting just one passage that really moved me.
This is when Michael Weir - Stephen Wraysford's closest wartime friend - goes home on leave to his parents in Leamington Spar. Weir has experienced death, squalor, disease, and utter degredation in the trenches. Yet his family cannot understand or respond when he tries to convey these experiences to them. It is beyond their imagination - as it is ours - that men could tolerate such conditions. Instead we see his parents treating him as if he has just been up to town for the week. They rebuke him, for example, for not telling them exactly the time he would be arriving. His mother fusses over him like a child: "You look a bit thin, Michael. What have they been feeding you on over in France?" You sense Weir's desperation as he realises that he cannot communicate any of the reality of the war to his family. This is so moving and heart-wrending. One can really believe that it was like that for so many men and their families when the war, for the British people, was "over there".
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on 2 July 2004
I have now read this book 4 times. Each time I read it, I find something new, and I feel a sense of sadness every time I reach the end.
This book has everything - romance and passion at the start, contrasting with the horrors of the Somme battlefield, and a link with the present day.
I learnt a great deal about how WW1 was fought - the descriptions of how both sides dug tunnels underground and lay mines under enemy lines was a revelation to me. Inspired by this book, I have since visited the Somme area and seen the remnants of some of the huge craters created by these explosions, and the thought of what it must have been like to live in a world where they were frequent occurrences is terrifying.
Faulks's writing style is beautiful yet highly readable, and the power of the story is what really carries this book along and makes one unable to put it down. Even if you are not particularly enthralled by WW1 history, read this book as a fine piece of modern literature and a darn good story...
Persevere through the first section to reach the part about the war - the brilliance of the book lies in the way it conveys what life was like for the men who suffered in WW1.
Please read this book - you will not regret it and you may, like me, find a book which changes your outlook on life.
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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.
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on 26 September 1999
Without doubt, Birdsong is by far and away the best book that I have read all year and is up against some some stiff competition. I was recommended it by a close friend of mine whose taste in books is seldom wrong, and she was right once again. The book is simply stunning. The harrowing narrative about trench life is starkly drawn, and leaves little to the imagination. Faulks portrays the soldiers' lives as hellish because, well, they were. It takes books like this to bring it all home to you about what those millions of people did for us all those years ago and is a living testimony to why the world wars should never be forgotten.
Now I am no historian, and I know that this book has been criticised by some people for its accuracy. Well who cares? If you do, go and read a textbook! The fact of the matter is that this book is not about where and when it happened, but what it was like to live in the worst possible conditions imaginable in a hopeless and unreal existence. Moreover, it shows a true definition of determination and survival. It points out how completely abysmal war really was, and so does it really matter if the occasional date might be incorrect or if the author used the wrong spelling of a French town? I think not.
The book is a breathtaking read from start to finish. You feel the intensity of the love scenes between Stephen and Isabelle and you begin to appreciate really what love could be like. You feel claustrophobic when you read about Jack and the tunnelers, and you feel the anguish when you see various characters watching their comrades being torn apart by sniper fire.
The book is quite amazing and I strongly suggest that you read it. A work of literary brilliance.
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on 28 September 2000
I was recommended this book by a friend and since reading it it seems nearly eveyone i mention it to has read it. I am not a serious reader but i read this in no time at all, and once more, was ready to read it again the second i finished it. Despite its great length (for me anyway)i have never been so moved and drawn into a book, or had such a feeling of empathy for the characters. This despite it being set some 80 more years ago. I'm sure most people have felt heated passion or love at some time and most of us know war is a terrible thing many of us are lucky not to have to face in our time. Birdsong is an endearing, beautifully written and most moving story. It is written so well that the pages fly by with ease. The terribly tragic, and all too forgotten era of the great war is brought to life incredibly vividly. One can almost experience the fear during an artillery barrage, taste the tension and anxiety of battle and witness the horror of impersonal, needless, mass slaughter on the somme. Not for the faint hearted i might add. The love story, however, is just as enthralling, it personalises in some way the vast subject of a terrible war in which so many took part and whose lives were forever changed. Although the timeline jumps around a bit it is easy to follow and this only makes it a more inticing read. It is a pity there aren't any more stars i can give this book. Birdsong is a truly emotional experience - it should be on everyone's bookshelf. A tribute to a lost generation.
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on 31 August 2001
Reading "Birdsong" is not an easy job. The novel is almost self-consciously literary at first and the romance that opens it is couched in terms that manage to be both explicit and prissy simultaneously. Erotic it may well be (it might even be sexy); affectionate it certainly isn't. The frost only starts to thaw when the narrative duties are passed from orphan, illicit lover and officer Stephen Weir to father, husband and trench miner Jack Firebrace. The rhythm Faulks establishes between Firebrace, Weir and a third character, Elizabeth Beresford, is the heartbeat of a novel that so desperately needs a heart to relieve its uncompromising evocation of The Great War and the alienation it causes in characters with little to offer in reply to its horrors. "Birdsong" could easily have been a confirmation of that observation by Wilfred Owen in "Futility" that the very existence of war is a nihilist argument, that if bored snipers will shoot casually at the shattered skull of a soldier long dead on the wire(as they do in "Birdsong")then we're kidding ourselves if we think humanity is worth anything. "Birdsong" could have been a confirmation of that, but Faulks' triumph is that it isn't. Despite or because of the horrors, it champions endurance (however pointless), understanding (however partial), peace (however facile) and love (however imperfect). To reach that kind of conclusion without a trace of sentimentality or compromise against the full blast of The Great War and what it tells us about ourselves is a genuine literary achievement. "Birdsong" is a great novel and I shall certainly read everything else Faulks has written.
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VINE VOICEon 28 June 2004
The Great War has a unique piquancy; a rich seam for the thoughtful and well researched author to plunder. Sebastian Faulks joins the ranks to give us his snapshot of life in the trenches and the impact on the generations that follow.
Birdsong for its war, is one well researched novel. The passages of trench warfare are eminently believable, sordid and catastrophic; and we are treated to writing so skilful that the reader is suspended in imagination of the action. It flows, it is real and it is awesome. True horror delivered in human terms, life and death tripping over a fine line.
Where Faulks trips up is in attempting to dress up Birdsong into a rounded behind the scenes historic family sweep. It does not work. The opening passages of our soon to be war hero, Stephen Wraysford in 1910 France, consist of clichéd French characters, upper class hearsay and the seduction of his mentor's wife with cringing pseudo - erotic sex scenes. None of which prepares or has any relation to the same character, or the verve of writing, we are treated to in the 1914 - 1918 war passages.
Then there are the intermittent 1970's tribulations of his granddaughter Elizabeth as she seeks to trace her family roots. It is plain poor melodrama and spills the trench tension carelessly from our grasp. What a shame. Faulks is clearly uncomfortable and largely inept in writing about everyday life and everyday emotions without relying on a sentimental, spoon fed, woefully poor symbolic, pitch. Elizabeth, for example, on her ride through the London Underground likens it to a bullet through a gun, a still train in its tight fitting hole. Such cheap symbolism to link us to Stephen's past plight.
One esteemed critic has said Birdsong is not a perfect novel - just a great one. Many other reviewers here have agreed it is not perfect; a hurried ending with those insignificant interruptions. It is a novel that can often make you hurry through with an edge and horror with its sublime translation of war and yet on the turn of a page make you wonder why Faulks ever thought he had to bother with the padding.
Birdsong is in stages transparently wonderful and transparently dreadful. Imagine two writers gluing together a plot; one a Booker nominee and the other a part-time Mills and Boon freelancer. You're left with mixed blessings; how much we owe the soldiers who fought and the lest we forget, the debt of future generations, overlaid with a mawkish slush. If only Faulks had played to his real talent and not strived so hard to drive the point home.
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on 11 August 2003
I read this book over a year ago in preparation for an A level English Literature exam - it came very highly recommended from everyone who had read it, and they were right. This book opens with a beautifully poignant love story, which some have called trite, but which I found breathtaking. The erotic scenes are passionate but not crude, and the emotion aroused in the reader by the attraction between the pair is incredible. The painfully sad ending to this section (if you're a hopeless romantic, like me) leads perfectly into the next section, where we see Stephen in the war. I have never read literature that touched my heart as much as the descriptions of war in this book. The account of the battle of the Somme was heartrending and terrifying, as was the story of the tunnelers, and Robert Weir's trip home was extremely poignant and painful to read. However, for me it was the ending that really made the book the masterpiece that it is - it truly did take my breath away (it's the hopeless romantic thing again) and I cried for a good few minutes before turning back to the start of the book and beginning again. I love this book. It's literature, not a historical account, so if there are a few mistakes in accuracy, who cares? Suspend reality and throw yourself into this book - become a romantic and feel as the characters feel. I promise you that you will not be disappointed.
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on 30 January 2006
Undoubtedly the most over-whelming book I have ever picked up. I found the book hard to read at first and wondered what the hype was about. This was perhaps due to its almost perverse detail and apparently random plot. However, as the novel progressed I found myself growing both increasingly affectionate and simultaneously angry at the main character of Stephen. I found it harder and harder to put down as more elements of the plot fitted into place. As I finished the book I felt exhausted, as if I had been there too. It is the most convincing and engulfing story that I have read. A book with the ability to draw you in and force you to observe the hopelessness and tragedy of the war, and one man's inexplicable urge for survival. Faulks has the astounding ability to describe minute observations and express the nature of men. A book so unlike to any other I have read that I am left not knowing what to pick up next.
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