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The Soldier's Song
on 25 February 2011
It is 1914 and Britain has just gone to war with Germany. In Ireland, young men are joining the army in droves- the Nationalists to show Britain that the Irish can be trusted for home rule and the Unionists to make sure they don't get home rule.
As a student of mathematics at the Protestant Trinity College Stephen Ryan has risen above his working class family, his dying father and his bitter younger brother, Joe, with whom he lives. But Stephen knows that he will never fit in with the other students, those who have paid to be there, not entered on a scholarship like himself. After three years as a student he decides to join the army as an officer with the Seventh Dublin Fusiliers. He wants to see the world, to experience life... and after all, the war will be over in a year.
After his training in Ireland, Stephen's first experience of the war comes when he is sent to fight in Turkey. His time in Turkey is told in a series of diary entries and letters between Stephen and his university friend, Billy. This is a format that appears at regular intervals throughout the book. After falling ill with malaria and dysentery, Stephen is sent back home to Ireland to recover. Once there, he realises that Ireland has it's own war going on, and he finds himself in the middle of a rebellion. Leaving Ireland once more, Stephen returns to fight in the trenches in France, earning medals and promotions as he does so. His brother remains in Ireland to fight for their freedom.
The Soldier's Song is a good read. As someone who is quite unfamiliar with Irish history, having it as a backdrop to the Great War is very interesting and certainly gives a different perspective. The development of the character of Stephen is good, and we see the obvious changes in him as the war takes its toll. I don't feel that the other characters are developed as well though. Stephen's love interest, Lillian Bryce, becomes more a part of the story as time goes on, but his brother and Billy completely vanish towards the end.
The book only really kicks in for me from when Stephen begins his work underground. It is this aspect of the war that affects him most and therefore, I think that it is this part of the book that is most effective in it's portrayal of the horrors of war. From this point on, the concentration is more on the fighting in France and less on what is going on at home in Ireland. The pace of the book seems to pick up and I could hardly put it down until I got to the end.
The blurb on the back of this book claims, "this is absolute Sebastian Faulks territory." I am a big fan of Faulks and Birdsong is probably one of my all time favourite reads. This, though a good read, is not really in the same league. It has moments where you just can't put it down, but all too often I found myself struggling to go on, especially in the first part of the book. It's an enjoyable and informative read, but there are better books out there with the war as their focus.