• "Engrossing, moving, and unforgettable." The Times
Birdsongby Sebastian Faulks
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In 1910 a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, goes to Picardy, France, to learn the textile business. While there he plunges into a love affair with the young wife of his host, a passion so imperative and consuming that it changes him forever. Several years later, with the outbreak of World War I, he finds himself again in the fields of Picardy, this time as a soldier on the Western Front. A strange, occasionally bitter man, Stephen is possessed of an inexplicable will to survive. He struggles through the hideously bloody battles of the Marne, Verdun, and the Somme (in the last named, thirty thousand British soldiers were killed in the first half hour alone), camps for weeks at a time in the verminous trenches, and hunkers in underground tunnels as he watches many of the companions he has grown to love perish. In spite of everything, Stephen manages to find hope and meaning in the blasted world he inhabits.
Sixty years after war's end, his granddaughter discovers, and keeps, Stephen's promise to a dying man. Sebastian Faulks brings the anguish of love and war to vivid life, and leaves the reader's mind pulsating with images that are graphic and unforgettable.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
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The boulevard du Cange was a broad, quiet street that marked the eastern flank of the city of Amiens. The wagons that rolled in from Lille and Arras to the north drove directly into the tanneries and mills of the Saint Leu quarter without needing to use this rutted, leafy road. The town side of the boulevard backed on to substantial gardens, which were squared off and apportioned with civic precision to the houses they adjoined. On the damp grass were chestnut trees, lilacs, and willows, cultivated to give shade and quietness to their owners. The gardens had a wild, overgrown look and their deep lawns and bursting hedges could conceal small clearings, quiet pools, and areas unvisited even by the inhabitants, where patches of grass and wild flowers lay beneath the branches of overhanging trees.
Behind the gardens the river Somme broke up into small canals that were the picturesque feature of Saint Leu; on the other side of the boulevard these had been made into a series of water gardens, little islands of damp fertility divided by the channels of the split river. Long, flat-bottomed boats propelled by poles took the town dwellers through the waterways on Sunday afternoons. All along the river and its streams sat fishermen, slumped on their rods; in hats and coats beneath the cathedral and in shirtsleeves by the banks of the water gardens, they dipped their lines in search of trout or carp.
The Azaires' house showed a strong, formal front toward the road from behind iron railings. The traffic looping down to the river would have been in no doubt that this was the property of a substantial man. The slate roof plunged in conflicting angles to cover the irregular shape of the house. Beneath one of them a dormer window looked out on to the boulevard. The first floor was dominated by a stone balcony, over whose balustrades the red ivy had crept on its way up to the roof. There was a formidable front door with iron facings on the timber.
Inside, the house was both smaller and larger than it looked. It had no rooms of intimidating grandeur, no gilt ballrooms with dripping chandeliers, yet it had unexpected spaces and corridors that disclosed new corners with steps down into the gardens; there were small salons equipped with writing desks and tapestry-covered chairs that opened inward from unregarded passageways. Even from the end of the lawn, it was difficult to see how the rooms and corridors were fitted into the placid rectangles of stone. Throughout the building the floors made distinctive sounds beneath the press of feet, so that with its closed angles and echoing air, the house was always a place of unseen footsteps.
Stephen Wraysford's metal trunk had been sent ahead and was waiting at the foot of the bed. He unpacked his clothes and hung his spare suit in the giant carved wardrobe. There was an enamel wash bowl and wooden towel rail beneath the window. He had to stand on tiptoe to look out over the boulevard, where a cab was waiting on the other side of the street, the horse shaking its harness and reaching up its neck to nibble at the branches of a lime tree. He tested the resilience of the bed, then lay down on it, resting his head on the concealed bolster. The room was simple but had been decorated with some care. There was a vase of wild flowers on the table and two prints of street scenes in Honfleur on either side of the door.
It was a spring evening, with a late sun in the sky beyond the cathedral and the sound of blackbirds from either side of the house. Stephen washed perfunctorily and tried to flatten his black hair in the small mirror. He placed half a dozen cigarettes in a metal case that he tucked inside his jacket. He emptied his pockets of items he no longer needed: railway tickets, a blue leather notebook, and a knife with a single, scrupulously sharpened blade.
He went downstairs to dinner, startled by the sound of his steps on the two staircases that took him to the landing of the first floor and the family bedrooms, and thence down to the hall. He felt hot beneath his waistcoat and jacket. He stood for a moment disorientated, unsure which of the four glass-panelled doors that opened off the hall was the one through which he was supposed to go. He half-opened one and found himself looking into a steam-filled kitchen in the middle of which a maid was loading plates on to a tray on a large deal table.
"This way, Monsieur. Dinner is served," said the maid, squeezing past him in the doorway.
In the dining room the family were already seated. Madame Azaire stood up.
"Ah, Monsieur, your seat is here."
Azaire muttered an introduction of which Stephen heard only the words "my wife." He took her hand and bowed his head briefly. Two children were staring at him from the other side of the table.
"Lisette," Madame Azaire said, gesturing to a girl of perhaps sixteen with dark hair in a ribbon, who smirked and held out her hand, "and Grègoire." This was a boy of about ten, whose small head was barely visible above the table, beneath which he was swinging his legs vigorously backward and forward.
The maid hovered at Stephen's shoulder with a tureen of soup. Stephen lowered a ladleful of it into his plate and smelt the scent of some unfamiliar herb. Beneath the concentric rings of swirling green the soup was thickened with potato.
Azaire had already finished his and sat rapping his knife in a persistent rhythm against its silver rest. Stephen lifted searching eyes above the soup spoon as he sucked the liquid over his teeth.
"How old are you?" said the boy.
"It doesn't matter," said Stephen to Madame Azaire. "Twenty."
"Do you drink wine?" said Azaire, holding a bottle over Stephen's glass.
Azaire poured out an inch or two for Stephen and for his wife before returning the bottle to its place.
"So what do you know about textiles?" said Azaire. He was only forty years old but could have been ten years more. His body was of a kind that would neither harden nor sag with age. His eyes had an alert, humourless glare.
"A little," said Stephen. "I have worked in the business for nearly four years, though mostly dealing with financial matters. My employer wanted me to understand more of the manufacturing process."
The maid took away the soup plates and Azaire began to talk about the local industries and the difficulties he had had with his work force. He owned a factory in town and another a few miles outside.
"The organization of the men into their syndicates leaves me very little room for manoeuvre. They complain they are losing their jobs because we have introduced machinery, but if we cannot compete with our competitors in Spain and England, then we have no hope."
The maid brought in a dish of sliced meat in thin gravy that she placed in front of Madame Azaire. Lisette began to tell a story of her day at school. She tossed her head and giggled as she spoke. The story concerned a prank played by one girl on another, but Lisette's telling of it contained a second level. It was as though she recognized the childish nature of what she said and wanted to intimate to Stephen and her parents that she herself was too grown-up for such things. But where her own interests and tastes now lay she seemed unsure; she stammered a little before tailing off and turning to rebuke her brother for his laughter.
Stephen watched her as she spoke, his dark eyes scrutinizing her face. Azaire ignored his daughter as he helped himself to salad and passed the bowl to his wife. He ran a piece of bread round the rim of the plate where traces of gravy remained.
Madame Azaire had not fully engaged Stephen's eye. In return he avoided hers, as though waiting to be addressed, but within his peripheral view fell the sweep of her strawberry-chestnut hair, caught and held up off her face. She wore a white lace blouse with a dark red stone at the throat.
As they finished dinner there was a ring at the front door and they heard a hearty male voice in the hall.
Azaire smiled for the first time. "Good old Bérard. On the dot as usual!"
"Monsieur and Madame Bérard," said the maid as she opened the door.
"Good evening to you, Azaire. Madame, delighted." Bérard, a heavyset grey-haired man in his fifties, lowered his lips to Madame Azaire's hand. His wife, almost equally well built, though with thick hair wound up on top of her head, shook hands and kissed the children on the cheek.
"I am sorry, I didn't hear your name when Ren? introduced us," said Bérard to Stephen.
While Stephen repeated it and spelled it out for him, the children were dismissed and the Bérards installed in their place.
Azaire seemed rejuvenated by their arrival. "Brandy for you, Bérard? And for you, Madame, a little tisane, I think? Isabelle, ring for coffee also, please. Now then-"
"Before you go any further," said Bérard, holding up his fleshy hand, "I have some bad news. The dyers have called for a strike to begin tomorrow. The syndicate chiefs met the employers' representatives at five this evening and that is their decision."
Azaire snorted. "I thought the meeting was tomorrow."
"It was brought forward to today. I don't like to bring you bad tidings, my dear Ren?, but you would not have thanked me if you had learned it from your foreman tomorrow. At least I suppose it won't affect your factory immediately."
Bérard in fact appeared to have enjoyed delivering the news. His face expressed a quiet satisfaction at the importance it had conferred on him. Madame Bérard looked admiringly at her husband.
Azaire continued to curse the work force and to ask how they expected him to keep his factories going. Stephen and the women were reluctant to give an opinion and Bérard, having delivered the news, seemed to have no further contribution to make on the subject.
"So," he said, when Azaire had run on long enough, "a strike of dyers. There it is, there it is."
This conclusion was taken by all, including Azaire, as the termination of the subject.
"How did you travel?" said Bérard.
"By train," said Stephen, assuming he was being addressed. "It was a long journey."
"Aah, the trains," said Bérard. "What a system! We are a great junction here. Trains to Paris, to Lille, to Boulogne . . . Tell me, do you have trains in England?"
"Let me see . . . For about seventy years."
"But you have problems in England, I think."
"I'm not sure. I wasn't aware of any."
Bérard smiled happily as he drank his brandy. "So there it is. They have trains now in England."
The course of the conversation depended on Bérard; he took it as his burden to act as a conductor, to bring in the different voices, and then summarize what they had contributed.
"And in England you eat meat for breakfast every day," he said.
"I think most people do," said Stephen.
"Imagine, dear Madame Azaire, roast meat for breakfast every day!" Bérard invited his hostess to speak.
She declined, but murmured something about the need to open a window.
"Perhaps one day we shall do the same, eh Ren??"
"Oh, I doubt it, I doubt it," said Azaire. "Unless one day we have the London fog as well."
"Oh, and the rain." Bérard laughed. "It rains five days out of six in London, I believe." He looked toward Stephen again.
"I read in a newspaper that last year it rained a little less in London than in Paris, though-"
"Five days out of six," beamed Bérard. "Can you imagine?"
"Papa can't stand the rain," Madame Bérard told Stephen.
"And how have you passed this beautiful spring day, dear Madame?" said Bérard, again inviting a contribution from his hostess. This time he was successful, and Madame Azaire, out of politeness or enthusiasm, addressed him directly.
"This morning I was out doing some errands in the town. There was a window open in a house near the cathedral and someone was playing the piano." Madame Azaire's voice was cool and low. She spent some time describing what she had heard. "It was a beautiful thing," she concluded, "though just a few notes. I wanted to stop and knock on the door of the house and ask whoever was playing it what it was called."
Monsieur and Madame Bérard looked startled. It was evidently not the kind of thing they had expected. Azaire spoke with the soothing voice of one used to such fancies. "And what was the tune, my dear?"
I don't know. I had never heard it before. It was just a tune like . . . Beethoven or Chopin."
"I doubt it was Beethoven if you failed to recognize it, Madame," said Bérard gallantly. "It was one of those folksongs, I'll bet you anything."
"It didn't sound like that," said Madame Azaire.
"I can't bear these folk tunes you hear so much of these days," Bérard continued. "When I was a young man it was different. Of course, everything was different then." He laughed with wry self-recognition. "But give me a proper melody that's been written by one of our great composers any day. A song by Schubert or a nocturne by Chopin, something that will make the hairs of your head stand on end! The function of music is to liberate in the soul those feelings that normally we keep locked up in the heart. The great composers of the past were able to do this, but the musicians of today are satisfied with four notes in a line you can sell on a song-sheet at the street corner. Genius does not find its recognition quite as easily as that, my dear Madame Azaire!"
Stephen watched as Madame Azaire turned her head slowly so that her eyes met those of Bérard. He saw them open wider as they focused on his smiling face, on which small drops of perspiration stood out in the still air of the dining room. How on earth, he wondered, could she be the mother of the girl and boy who had been with them at dinner?
"I do think I should open that window," she said coldly, and stood up with a rustle of silk skirt.
"And you too are a musical man, Azaire?" said Bérard. "It's a good thing to have music in a household where there are children. Madame Bérard and I always encouraged our children in their singing."
Stephen's mind was racing as Bérard's voice went on and on. There was something magnificent about the way Madame Azaire turned this absurd man aside. He was only a small-town bully, it was true, but he was clearly used to having his own way.
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Meet the Author
Sebastian Faulks is best known for his trilogy of novels set in France: The Girl at the Lion d’Or, Birdsong, and Charlotte Gray, the latter two of which were bestsellers. After a period in France, he and his family now live in London.
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I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked this book. I was afraid that all the war descriptions would put me off but the book is written so well that you don't feel overwhelmed by the descriptions of the war. I also really like the way the author ties the different generations together. The characters are written brilliantly, even the lesser characters, but not in a way that confuses the story or makes it complicated. It wasn't a can't put down book but I felt very fulfilled when it ended.
I am an avid reader of all periods of historical fiction and had never read anything by SFaulks when I picked this book up. From page one he created such a consuming, emotionally gripping love story that progressed into a war story/details that I never would have guessed the book would contain. In the course of reading the book I think I actually read much of it twice out of awe for his beautiful mastery of the english language. His descriptions and understanding of human emotion, both strength and weakness, are brilliant and I found myself feeling as though I was right there in the midst of the trenches and as though I knew each of the men personally. What astounded me most was the honest realty which he wasn't afraid to portray, sometimes making the reader uncomfortable but lending such integrity to the story and the details. After reading the book I wanted to research The Great War more to have a better understanding of context for the characters. Since completing Birdsong, I have also read Charlotte Gray and The Girl at the Lion D'or, which are both excellent as well. Birdsong is truly a book that will stay with you and will change your life and the way you view history.
If you like psychological fiction and can stomach painfully real battlefield stories, this book is for you. Sebastian Faulks' Stephen Wraysford is a complex character even before he becomes a soldier. But I was in awe of how well Faulks depicts the mental stages Wraysford (and his comrades) pass through as the war trudges on and on and on. What was worse - to be aboveground watching someone's body parts get blown off or tunnelling below, where any day you could be buried alive? I give the book four stars rather than five because the beginning of the book dealing with his pre-war life seemed disjointed and the interspersed story of his granddaughter told more about her life than was necessary to the story.
I have thoroughly enjoyed this, as well as other books by Sebastian Faulks. He is a wonderful author - very adept at developing his characters and the history surrounding them. I found myself totally immersed in their lives. I know I will be very reluctant to to leave these people when the story ends.
I was quite busy those days at the Studios. I work as a Broadcasting News Producer here in Madrid. We had lots of Press Conferences to attend plus lots of pictures to buy. But I was definitely flashed, amazed and in love. Wraysford character was the one. The truth is that I haven't finish it yet but I'm so deeply shocked by this narrative that I need to share it. There's something in it the makes you dive into your own personal hero. While in London a good British friend of mine A.Power told me; 'You better by this book, is touching indeed'-He says. And I really enjoyed it, It's fashing, deep and you wish to arrive home in order to dive again... Victoria and David were trying to find a 'Chalet' to buy here in 'La Moraleja' posh area.While I was in Brussels with Stephen granddaughter trying to make sure if her lover were about to leave his wife or not.
Birdsong is possibly one of the greatest novels of all time, having fought in both the battle of the Somme and the 3rd battle of Ypres i am yet to have found such a brilliant yet descriptive view of what went on during those fateful days. Along with a griping story of one mans love for a women he cannot have and the advance into the 70's for a look at how other generations viewed the war. 'Birdsong' is possibly the greatest novel of the last 10 years.
I am a voracious reader - and this simply is one of the best books I've ever read. It was just so unbelievably beautiful - even among all the horror and pain of WWI. I felt I was living every moment with the men trapped and doomed by the war. I highly recommend this book.
I picked up Birdsong from a used bookstore purely on chance--I had never even heard of Sebastian Faulks before. From the moment I began reading I was entranced. I finished this book in a weekend and was thoroughly engrossed. It was a fantastically moving story of love and longing, survival and struggle. Although Wraysford's character seems detached and distant, I was caught up in his life throughout the book. The intensity of his desire for this woman left all his other experiences seeming pale, and I nearly cried for him in his need for her. Anyone who has ever felt the sting of love unrequited will relate with his longing. A completely wonderful read.
Didn't like the characters.
A love and war story a little graphic but nothing you don't see in the movies now. It is a story you won't be able to put down.
Not my typical read, but I appreciated the historical aspect of this novel. I was touched deeply.
It has been a long time since I was sad to finish a book. Despite all 450 pages with too much devoted, in my opinion, to the war instead of the love story, I got lost during the winter nights in this book. I am better, enriched, for having read it, connecting with the process of a young man's journey through an affair and WWI in France. Which broke his heart more? How does one recover? Who loved him more, Isabelle, Jeanne, or Captain Weir in the midst of his isolation? It's hard to say. Thank you, Sebastian Faulks, for this modern, classic novel.
I am 16 years old and LOVED this book. I enjoy learning and reading about WWI and WWII. Once you pick up 'Birdsong', it will be hard to put down. The characters are brilliantly written and the love story will instantly draw you in. The description[s] of war are sometimes hard to read, but are honestly and realistically portrayed. The love story is beautiful, and equally heartbreaking as well. Sebastian Faulks tied the different generations of the story together in a way that is not confusing to the reader. The ending is somewhat abrupt in my opinion. But overall, I would definitely recommend this book to those who enjoy historical fictions.
AMAAAAAAAAAAAZING BOOK! absolutely left me breathless but heart-wrenching at some parts. The description of war and how the way he phrases the words to know what the characters are feeling but not directly describing it drew me in to love it more. I'm glad I bought it/
My book club is reading this for May, so I will stick with it until the end, but if not for that, I'd give up on this too detailed, too male oriented, too dull novel. It doesn't even compare to Fall of Giants, another World War One novel which had me spellbound from page one. I'll just wait anxiously for its sequel, coming in September.
Loved the book, alot of historical fiction, war was very intense, I will be sure to get other books by Sebastian Faulks. Good for book club discussion.
Beautiful story that combines all the highlights and heartbreaks of life.
Well, I was relieved to finish this book and find out who won The Great War. Other than that, I found it to be a dichotomous story of love and war with little connection between the two. Combined with largely irrelevant and lengthy descriptions relating to minor characters, it became somewhat tedious to complete this book. The modern day chapters further diluted the main themes and ended with a resounding dud. The only reason I gave it three stars was its excellent portrayal of the horrors of trench warfare.