Sebastian Faulks’s 1993 novel about the Great War opens in peacetime: a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, comes to Amiens in 1910 to learn more about the textile industry and take what he has learned back to his masters in England. He stays with the family of an industrialist, Azaire, and while he is there, he falls passionately in love with the man’s wife, Isabelle. The affair that ensues comes to a close not long before the war begins. The next time we see Stephen, he is in the trenches. Stephen’s story is interwoven with flash-forwards to the 1970s, in which his granddaughter Elizabeth seeks an escape from the round of her daily life by finding some connection with her long-dead grandfather and the war in which he fought.

This book calls itself a “novel of love and war,” but it’s several steps above a romance novel. Faulks tells a hard story well, and he relates individual stories to the broader historical scene in a way that pulls you in: the officer, the enlisted man, the French, the English, the women, the men. Though he uses scenes that could be considered a bit cliched (the muddy trenches, the communal baths), he makes them work: there are scenes that take that drama and show it fresh.

But Faulks’s style is an odd combination of the graphic — the explicit — and the distant. Here’s an (almost random) example of what I mean: at the beginning of the novel, Stephen is twenty years old, and madly in love with the lady of the house. In the night, he hears an odd sound, “almost like sobbing, interrupted by a more material sound of brief impact.” Uh-oh. Impulsively, he leaves his room to try to find to source of the noise. But as he’s getting closer, he rethinks:

The passageway came to a junction, and looking to the left Stephen saw a narrow bar of light coming from beneath a closed door. He calculated how close to the door he should go. He wanted to remain sufficiently near to the turn in the corridor that he would have time to double back into it and out of sight of anyone emerging from the room.

Cold-blooded skulking, that’s what I call that, for a twenty-year-old. At any rate, the whole book is like that: highly emotional scenes described, but at a distance of one or two steps. We are told, earnestly (and explicitly) about the passion Stephen and Isabelle experience. We are shown battle scenes of unspeakable violence and gruesome horror. There is even a graphic scene of childbirth. Yet almost none of it really moved me.

Part of it is that Stephen himself is portrayed as strange. He was brought up, first by his grandparents, and later in an institution he hated, and he seems to retain some measure of self-preserving distance toward the world. But I can’t blame it all on that. The main problem is really that even though all the characters are conducting their lives in the ultimate passions of love and war, they seem to be distanced from any of it, a chilly pace away from engagement with their circumstances.

The book is inconsistent, as well. Some characters are thin — Azaire, for instance, is nearly a cartoon — and others are rich. The one character who seemed to me completely fleshed out is Jack Firebrace, an enlisted man who receives bad news at the front:

Jack put the letter down on the ground and stared in front of him. He thought: I will not let this shake my faith. His life was a beautiful thing, it was filled with joy. I will thank God for it.

He put his head in his hands to pray but was overpowered by the grief of his loss. No polite words of gratitude came, but only the bellowing darkness of desolation. “My boy,” he sobbed, “my darling boy.”

Firebrace and his loss — or, rather, his losses — are touching personal moments in a sea of graphic violence. Faulks uses a good many themes, like the sappers’ tunnels underground, that don’t seem to go anywhere much. Is he getting at the idea of fighting for the land? Because he explicitly rejects that notion, via Stephen. If there was more, I didn’t get it.

This book may have suffered for me because I so recently read Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy. Those books were not only brilliantly written and structured, not only full of allusions and ideas, not only perfectly balanced between the tedium of everyday affairs and the inevitable violence of the war, they were profoundly compassionate. Birdsong was passionate, yes, but I felt it pushing the war away, describing its disgusting details in order to repel me, rather than trying to understand it. It’s quite an important difference — one that tipped the balance, for me.

Note: Funny story. When I first began this book, I thought for some reason that it had been written just after the first World War. About forty pages in, I got to some very graphic sex scenes, and my jaw dropped. I flipped to the copyright page. Oh. 1993. That explains that, then!

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14 Responses to Birdsong

  1. Alex says:

    Your reaction to ‘Birdsong’ really interested me. I read it when it first came out, so that must have been back in 1993, almost twenty years ago. It was the must read book of the year, everyone was raving about it and I do remember appreciating it more than you seem to have done. However, recently here in the UK we have had a televised version of it which I simply couldn’t watch. It wasn’t for the usual reason, you know, the I don’t want that book spoiled reason, but because I didn’t want to revisit the story. That combined with what you say makes me wonder if I got caught up by all the hype back in 1993, but I don’t think I’m going back to the book to find out.

    • Jenny says:

      I know that most people reacted very differently to this book than I did, Alex — it got awards and has earned a place on many “books you must read” lists. But it just never engaged me. There were many good things about it, and good patches in it, but I found it difficult to get through.

  2. I read this recently and loved it. I don’t think the tunnels are a theme of the book – he is just describing what happened during the war. It is simply a good story. The tunnels didn’t go anywhere – is just shows the futility of war. The only message I came away with was from the ending. Without giving spoilers it is about both sides being human and suffering in the same way. I’m not familiar with Parade’s End – I’ll have to make a note of that.

    • Jenny says:

      You’re right that it’s a good story, Jackie! World War I is a rollicking good story. But the writing just did not engage me. And while I know what you mean about the end to Stephen’s war, I didn’t think the very end was well done at all, with a character who was virtually meaningless to the story rejoicing. So what, I thought? But I am thrilled that you loved it. :)

  3. A fine review, i would say. Though I have not read the book yet, I have heard so much about it. I would have to add it to my TBR to satisfy my curiosity. Thanks.

    • Jenny says:

      A very dear friend of mine put this one on my TBR. I’m not sorry I read it, I’m just sorry I didn’t like it as much as he thought I would.

  4. Chris says:

    The graphic sex and graphic violence makes this sound like a cross between 50 Shades of Grey and The Hunger Games, though it was written much earlier. Based on your review and the comments I think I’d like to check this one out.

    • Jenny says:

      Ha! There’s not nearly enough sex for 50 Shades, and the violence is real, not young-adult fantasy violence. I would try it if you’re interested! Many, many, many people have loved this book far more than I did.

  5. I laughed when I read your final note about the sex scene and the temporal whiplash it gave you! I’ve had that happen a few times, where I’ve been certain a book was written during a specific time, only to find myself marveling at all the anachronisms…

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, that’s funny. Yes, it really did surprise me! I thought, my goodness, that’s just… was this book banned…? And then I just checked, because I realized that no book written in the teens or ’20s would have been published with such graphic detail! It’s not pornographic, but much too explicit for a turn of the century book.

  6. Jenny says:

    Oh! I felt just the same about Charlotte Gray — it was a good read and I liked it, but I did feel that the author was somehow keeping me at one remove from the characters and their emotions.

    On another note, do you know about this BBC miniseries they’re doing of Parade’s End? It’s meant to come out later this year. Tom Stoppard’s writing it, and it has Rebecca Hall in it. I have the biggest girl-crush on Rebecca Hall.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, I’m so glad someone else reacted the same way I did to Faulks! It’s not that the story wasn’t good, it’s that I just couldn’t engage. And yes, I’ve heard about the miniseries. I will be glued, positively GLUED to that one. It will probably be completely wonderful.

  7. Jeanne says:

    I liked the distant way Stephen went through his life–it seemed very real for someone in his situation. It actually made the Elizabeth sections harder to read, though, because she seemed abrasive by contrast.

    • Jenny says:

      It just seemed jarring to me. All the explicit blood and explicit sex, but such a chilly main character. I couldn’t really get there. But I’m glad you saw something more than I did.

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