The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I knew this one would be emotional so I've waited a while to make sure I was receptive and in the right frame of mind to read it. It was lent to me with his recommendations by my friends husband some time ago.
This is the story of Stephen Wraysford, starting in 1910 while working in France, he has a passionate affair with a married French woman. They run away together but finding herself pregnant, Isabelle, driven by her conscience returns to her family and then her husband. We are then pitched headlong into 1916 and the trenches of the First World War, where Stephen is living and fighting along with his men. The war forms the bulk of the novel and is interspersed with accounts from his grandaughter in 1978 (and has never met him) who is researching her grandfathers life to gain an insight on where she comes from. We learn, mainly from his perspective as it happens, but also from an retrospective view in the future, about his war experiences, his re encounter with Isabelle and how war affects and changes everyone.
It is written in a very straightforward style, with little poetry or wordplay, just strong characters and plot. I was surprised by the first 100 or so pages describing the love affair. Although a good introduction to the characters it is a little long and some of the plotlines it introduces peter out later in the book. The core of the book is the war itself and this is when the book really gets going.
The characters of the book are built up with details of their lives, making them seem real. They are never representational, nor are they over sentimentalised. You feel you get to know them, you connect to them, you worry about them, their circumstances, of which we can never truly imagine, and you are hurt when they fall. The author describes the horrors without sensationalising them. You are not let off lightly and some parts are difficult to continue. I had to put the book down and come back to it more than once. The main character, Stephen, is the hardest to know, 'a strange one', described as cold and enigmatic. He grew on me and I found I admired and cared for him towards the end. I also found, although a male dominated story and set up, that the womens characters, when present, were also well rounded as recognisable individuals, not just periphery to the real action.
It is the details that allow you to glimpse their crippling and inhuman conditions. I wanted to feel the irritation of lice, or to hear the noise of the shells, only momentarily, just to know. I don't want to go down the tunnels or experience the death. I was moved greatly on many occasions, by the poor boy in the hospital who is burnt and whose treatments add to his agonies before he dies, or Brennan in the nursing home in 1978, muttering about his brother, who, only we know was killed on the frontline during the war and whose torso was found by Brennan 2 weeks later. The incapability of those not in the war to fully understand or deal with the horrors the soldiers have witnessed adds to the situation they are in. They pray for it to be over but how do they go back to any normal kind of life, finding themselves forever alone and damaged because of it. I found I was racing the last part with disbelief, just to know the outcome. I also found the arrangement of the sections between the war and 1978 heightened the experience and gave a linked perspective to modern day.
I didn't think it was going to, but this book grabbed me, almost against my will. I would urge anyone to read it because these stories need to be told. We are very soon to be handed the responsibility of passing them on, so they are not forgotten, and this book is an excellent place to start.
For anyone who enjoyed this book, I would also recommend Germinal by Emile Zola, describing similar depths of the human spirit to survive in abject circumstances, not during a war but working in the mines in 19th century France.
Book Browse have a readers guide for Birdsong...


Gentle Reader said...

I read this book years ago, but I still remember Faulks's descriptions of the trenches. Horrifying, and yes, the book grabbed me against my will, too.

Anonymous said...

I read Faulks's Human Traces two years ago and remember a similar style to what you describe here. I definitely agree that he handles both feminine and masculine even if the books are decidedly masculine...does that make sense. I will add this one to the list, thank you!

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