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- Faulks, Sebastian — Birdsong (407 pages)
- Page count
It seems just about every English person raves about Birdsong. In fact, I'm sure the most negative thing I've ever heard a Brit utter about it is, "That's a great novel." Without fail, every single person I told I was reading WWI-inspired literature told me I had to read Birdsong. What choice did I really have?
Birdsong tells three distinct stories — or perhaps it's one long story interrupted by a war. There is a rather unusual love story which begins in Amiens in 1910 and develops haltingly over the next several years, with a few unexpected twists. A few years after an interruption of the love story, we encounter our young lover, Stephen Wraysford, leading men at the front. What follows is a vivid depiction of the war. Interspersed are scenes from the third story thread, set in the 1970s, featuring Elizabeth trying to find herself in the modern world and reaching into the past for answers.
The common theme that develops through all three threads is about finding love and humanity in an inhumane world. The war is just a foil, though an extremely pitched foil. The antebellum world, with its restrictive mores, and the modern world, with its consumerism and fast pace, are effectively dehumanizing as well. That both Wraysford and Elizabeth find their humanity through the crucible of the Great War is the height of irony. And Faulks pulls no punches illustrating just how soul-destroying war is.
The pre-War love story (occupying the first 100 pages) was interesting and at times racy. Beyond that, I did not find it terribly compelling. It was merely necessary to set the groundwork for what was to come. And while the modern bits were moving at times, I had difficulty caring for Elizabeth or any of her counterparts.
Where Birdsong shines, though, is in its depictions of the War and its psychological effects on everyone involved, soldier and civilian. The depiction of the Battle of the Somme is particularly effective in conveying the insanity that prevailed at times. And while the book did not lack for depictions of life in the trenches, as with any WWI book, it spent a considerable amount of time underground, detailing the war that was being fought underneath the ground, a perspective on the War I had not previously encountered.
Faulks did a lot of good things in this novel. He is a precise writer with a keen sense for characterization. Still, I am not convinced by Birdsong. Everything ties up nicely at the end, but it feels a bit fabricated. Had Faulks chosen to tell a story of one man struggling to survive the war with ever so tiny a shred of his humanity intact, it would have been a great WWI book. But Birdsong isn't about the War; it's themes are larger, more universal. I'm just not sure Faulks pulled it off completely.