Review: Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I always love to watch the reactions of people when I tell them what book I’m reviewing each month. For me, Birdsong was telling. Each time I’d tell someone, I’d instantly get responses like “great choice”, “excellent book”. But when I’d then follow up with “have you read it?” the answer was invariable “no. I’ve always meant to but never got around to it.”

And that is exactly why I chose to take it on this month. This is one of my bucket list books. It pops up all the time on those “100 books to read before you die” lists. It’s regularly hailed as Faulks’ best work. And everyone seems to have heard of it. And yet so few of us have read it.

This book was not what I expected. If I’m truly honest, I don’t know what I was expecting but not that. One of the things people tell you is it’s a “story about the war” so I kinda expected it to, you know, be set in the war. And it is. Eventually. But the main story is bookended on both ends by love stories. You actually start some years earlier in a French village with an English man named Stephen Wraysford who is visiting a family there. The first sixty pages this book felt heavy. Very heavy. The kind of heavy that makes you consider putting it down from the effort. Take my advice.

Don’t.

It might be a slow starter (honestly, the stuff about the factory and the strikes and the banal events of a cliché perfect-on-the-outside, troubled-behind-closed-doors family held little interest for me – the character building for both Isabelle and Stephen was so slow and while it does set you up with the secondary characters, most of them prove insignificant for the remainder of the novel aside from a thrown in line to warn you of their fate) but keep going. At about page 60, this book lights up like a firecracker on the 4th of July.

Another suggestion, don’t read this book at work. There I was, casually reading away my modern doorwedge of a faux classic when all of a sudden things were happening and I was suddenly very aware I was in company. Suffice to say, this book is not a PG rating. But from that point onwards, it takes off. And then Faulks throws in another curve ball (rolling with the America themed similes and metaphors today apparently)

In essence, this story is the story of Stephen’s journey through the war. Ish. With side plots. And random characters. And the odd divergence here and there. But he is the common thread that runs through it all. If you don’t care what happens to him, then you won’t get to the end (though I would challenge anyone not to). Because this book likes to time travel. Just as I was really getting into Isabelle and Stephen’s journey I suddenly found myself 6 years down the road and with a completely different character (Jack).

This is where the war stuff really comes in. You follow a whole battalion of characters as they struggle their way through the coming days, including the first day of the Somme (if you have a weak stomach, maybe skip this one – it’s gritty, real and doesn’t soften the horrors that happened there at all). And just as all this is kicking of…

We get stuck with Elizabeth.

I feel sorry for her as a character. She’s well written and in any other book her story line would seem engaging but against the brutalities of Stephen’s story line she just comes off (for me anyway) as a moaning girl with boyfriend troubles. Her sections are interspersed from here to the end with the tellings of Stephen’s struggles.

But Elizabeth does provide something else in this book. Guilt. On the cover of the version I read there is a quote from a reviewer “deeply moving”. I tend to find this means one of two things. Either a) you are going to come out of this novel with a renewed love for humanity and faith therein or b) you are going to be depressed as hell. This one is mostly the latter. It covers so many themes from the pointless waste of lives in the war, to the sheer bravery of the men that fought. It touches on how ill we treated these men after they returned and also on the emotional hell they were put through. There were parts of it that made me feel positively nauseous at the things these men went through “for King and Country”. And through Elizabeth, it points out our ignorance. November 11th every year we wear our poppies and say our thanks but most of us have next to no real idea what happened out on the fields of France. What exactly we are thanking these men for. For example, I had no idea they had miners out on the front lines. Men stuck underground for hours at a time in appalling conditions and although I did know about the massacre of the Somme, to read it through the eyes of those on the ground made it gutwrenchingly real.

Character wise, men do somewhat better than women. I don’t think you are supposed to “like” persay any particular character. But you do know them. They feel so real. So dynamic off the page. Their voices are so… human, it is what makes this book at the same time both compulsive reading but also repulsive reading in a way. Faulks is almost cruel. By treating the characters with such indifference, he makes the reader really care. You feel the deaths. There will be moments you’ll just have to stop reading for a moment and recover/grieve. You will find yourself begging them to just keep breathing as you rush through the pages dreading what you’ll find. He writes characters that have become immune to even their own death and so you as the reader take over the obligation of care. In a world full of fictional works that desensitise us to death, this one makes it brutally real. And if for that reason, and no other, it should be on everyone’s reading list.

Female characters are a little more two-dimensional. I wasn’t fond of Isabelle or Jeanne or Lisette and as I’ve already discussed, Elizabeth, while a useful vessel for conveying ideas, was in herself dull and man obsessed.

I suppose all that said, it was inevitable that I was never going to be satisfied with the ending. In many ways for me it felt too clean after such a messy journey. Elizabeth’s ending made me roll my eyes openly (and felt rushed, as though it was squeezed in at the last minute). And I wish he had spent a little longer in the final moments of Stephen’s – there was so much opportunity there – the amount of conflict and confusion after everything that had happened – that mix of characters I felt was under used. A mere chapter or two felt too little to me.

But all is forgiven for the writing. This book is a master-class. Faulks brings history to life with such a subtle hand that you barely realise you are reading words. You are seeing pictures. I’ve not seen any of the TV adaptations but I can’t imagine any living up to his prose. The detail, the definition, the care with which he tells his story is breathtaking.

This book will mentally destroy you as you read it. But don’t let that put you off. It is equally one of the hardest and one of the easiest 500 pages I’ve ever read. But definitely one of the most worthwhile. And for this reason, it’s in my “magical 1%” category. Those books that live with you. That change you in imperceivable ways. That become way more than just a story in a book. Books that stay with you forever. The war sections of this book will hurt. From the simple action of reading the letters in the trenches to the pain of characters like Brennan and Weir. This book is a war story, a love story and a survival story. But most of all, and the reason no matter if you even hate all of the afore listed types of stories that you will finish it, this book is about the human spirit and its incredible ability to endure the unendurable even when that spirit is irrevocably broken.

Rating: 10-10 – this isn’t a should read, its a must read

Favourite Quotes (7): “What was held to be a place of natural beauty was stagnation of living tissue which could not be saved from decay.”

“The harder he worked, the easier it seemed”

“I think children need to believe in powers outside themselves. That’s why they read books about witches and wizards and God knows what. There is a human need for that which childhood normally exhausts. But if a child’s world is broken up by too much reality, that need goes underground.”

“She had taken a job because she needed to live; she had found an interesting one in preference to a dull one; she had tried to do well rather than badly. She could not see how any of these three logical steps implied a violent rejection of men or children.”

“You can believe in something without compromising the burden of your own existence.”

“It made little difference that this was, by comparison, a small attack: there were no degrees of death.”

”He wanted it louder and louder; he wanted them to drown out the war with their laughter. If they could shout loud enough, they might bring the world back to its senses; they might laugh loud enough to raise the dead.”

Favourite Character: Jack

Least Favourite Character: Elizabeth