When I saw this sitting on the shelf in our local Cancer Research shop (every single book is £1.50 regardless of edition/condition, etc – marvellous!) I felt that familiar pang of guilt that has become a common feeling when browsing bookshelves and spying all those volumes I have always had the best intentions of picking up and yet it takes me literally years to do so. The words ‘modern classic’ seem to have been liberally bounded around this book and I think it is this, along with the main theme, which has always made me shy away. It is possible that I was worried, following all of the hype and everybody I knew telling me that I simply must read it, that I would be disappointed. Perhaps I am also occasionally reluctant to follow the hype.
I must admit that these feeling were compounded by the thought of 500 + pages of WWI. It’s tough, it’s heavy and somehow I couldn’t possibly imagine how an author could expand the story of one soldier very much beyond the trenches and the battlefields……how wrong that assumption was. At the beginning of the novel we meet an impetuous young man; Stephen Wraysford, visiting a factory in Amiens in Northern France on behalf of his employer and living with the factory owner René Azaire, his wife, Isabelle and René’s two young children.
I was pleasantly surprised at the intensely passionate, romantic start to this novel as Stephen becomes more drawn to the mistress of the house; tension that rapidly transforms into a full blown affair. The fact that this would not be a book with just one ‘setting’ so to speak and that there would be some memorable female characters was a simply brilliant discovery and made this a much more well-rounded book, rather than (as I feared) an extended version of the wonderful, harrowing, yet hard-going war poetry I studied in my final years of English Literature at school.
The novel is split into seven sections, spanning almost seventy decades. After experiencing the sumptuous (and rather racy in parts!) first section of the novel, charting Stephen’s great love (and losses) we jump directly into the trenches and meet an anxious, slightly older, young officer, leading his men into almost certain death. I can’t think of anything that would make Faulks’ vivid descriptions of life in the trenches and in the battlefield any more perfect. There is, as expected, blood, guts and gore, but it is never made distasteful by being overly melodramatic. We are left with the solid impression that this is the here and now, this is reality, our much loved characters are essentially slabs of living flesh and ‘meat’ and all social rules and conventions have been utterly abandoned in this singular environment; a world that has nowadays almost completely disappeared from living memory.
I found Stephen to be quite a cold character that I found difficult to completely connect with and I think that stopped this being a ‘great’ book for me and left it at a ‘very good’ one. It is always difficult when you don’t completely understand the main protagonist, although I accept that these comments are unfair as I also took this to be a very realistic description of an ordinary man and his natural reaction to extraordinary circumstances. Certain characters however stole the show for me and led me to physically wince in horror as the majority of them are literally blown to pieces before our very eyes. Two particular favourites were Jack Firebrace, one of the miners (a position that I, incidentally, wasn’t really aware of and which was particularly interesting) digging long claustrophobic tunnels under no-mans land to blow up the enemy, and his Captain, Michael Weir, who becomes close to Stephen and, through this friendship, afforded some glimpses of softness and compassion in our main character. Jack Firebrace I imagined as a kind of smart ‘Baldrick’ character, a simple, brave soldier, working hard and dreaming of home. Captain Weir, on the other hand, is a slightly more complicated and vulnerable man who provided some of the most poignant scenes in the book; one being a trip home in the middle of the war to see his parents and the complete sense of detachment and bitterness he feels as he contemplates the ignorant life they are living apart from the horrors of war.
Our story never again explores the pre-war Stephen; whose former life and loves make poignant yet fleeting background appearances during the war years. Instead we are thrust backwards and forwards between the battlefield and the life of his granddaughter, living in England in 1978. I wasn’t keen on this section of the book at first. The dramatic alteration in dialogue and subject matter seemed disjointed and, the granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, superficial at first. However I soon embraced the character as a necessary part of the whole, not only did these sections provide a welcome break from the heavy plotline of the War, Elizabeth’s meeting (which left me feeling very sad indeed) with war veterans and the continuation of her life holding onto the knowledge and memories that her grandfather left behind leaves us with an incredibly poignant and important message. The final few sentences contains some beautiful imagery and I felt incredibly satisfied upon closing the book.
Birdsong hasn’t changed my life, but it is without a doubt a very important book and, at the risk of sounding like everyone else, you simply must read it. It is vivid and visceral; a true epic and classic of its time, but the only problem is that I read it far too fast. The entire topic and setting fills you with nervous energy and I really feel (it took me a week to read this) that it should have taken me longer. Happily it is a book to read again and again as there is so much more to discover, so many sentences to savor, and perhaps forget, and then pick up and savor all over again…..