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.
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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 Gr?goire." 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 B?rard. On the dot as usual!"
"Monsieur and Madame B?rard," said the maid as she opened the door.
"Good evening to you, Azaire. Madame, delighted." B?rard, 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 B?rard to Stephen.
While Stephen repeated it and spelled it out for him, the children were dismissed and the B?rards installed in their place.
Azaire seemed rejuvenated by their arrival. "Brandy for you, B?rard? And for you, Madame, a little tisane, I think? Isabelle, ring for coffee also, please. Now then-"
"Before you go any further," said B?rard, 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."
B?rard in fact appeared to have enjoyed delivering the news. His face expressed a quiet satisfaction at the importance it had conferred on him. Madame B?rard 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 B?rard, 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 B?rard.
"By train," said Stephen, assuming he was being addressed. "It was a long journey."
"Aah, the trains," said B?rard. "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."
B?rard smiled happily as he drank his brandy. "So there it is. They have trains now in England."
The course of the conversation depended on B?rard; 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!" B?rard 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." B?rard 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 B?rard. "Can you imagine?"
"Papa can't stand the rain," Madame B?rard told Stephen.
"And how have you passed this beautiful spring day, dear Madame?" said B?rard, 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 B?rard 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 B?rard 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," B?rard 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 B?rard. 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 B?rard. "It's a good thing to have music in a household where there are children. Madame B?rard and I always encouraged our children in their singing."
Stephen's mind was racing as B?rard'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.
What People are Saying About This
Birdsong moved me more profoundly than anything I've read in years….A deeply compassionate, utterly thrilling work by a master of the form.
Reading Group Guide
The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading and discussion of Sebastian Faulks's Birdsong. We hope they will enrich your understanding of this overpowering and harrowing novel, a Tolstoyan epic of love, war, and redemption.
1. What does Azaire's conduct as a businessman say about his character, and what is Stephen's response to it? How does Azaire's treatment of the men who work for him reflect his treatment of his wife?
2. Does Stephen see Isabelle as a captive? Does she see herself the same way? How does Stephen's perception of Isabelle and her predicament differ from her own self-perception?
3. Why does Isabelle leave Stephen? How does her departure affect his identity as a soldier, the way he approaches the war, and the manner in which he conducts himself during it?
4. What premonitions of war and death does Faulks give us in the 1910 section of the book? Where and when does Stephen have visions of death within the lush beauty of prewar Picardy? Do you feel that these visions are simple premonitions, or is the predisposition to such images a part of Stephen's character?
5. Where and to what purpose does Faulks use images of birds? Why does Stephen fear birds, and what do birds symbolize for him? What do they seem to mean to the author? How might you explain Stephen's dream on page 44?
6. While staying with the Azaires, Stephen writes, "I am driven by a greater force than I can resist. I believe that force has its own reason and its own morality even if they may never be clear to me while I am alive" [p. 49]. Where else in the novel does Stephen sense that sort of force, and how does he respond to it?
7. How would you describe the character of Jack Firebrace? How does it change during the course of the war? What "dies" in him when Horrocks hurls his cross away? What do his letters to Margaret reveal about his character, his values, his code of behavior?
8. The soldiers tend to forget very quickly the names and characters of their friends who die. Do you find this shocking? Is such willed oblivion necessary in order to give life to the men's own delicate instinct for self-preservation?
9. "I think [the men] will do ten times more before it's finished and I'm eager to know how much. If I didn't have that curiosity I would walk into enemy lines and let myself be killed. I would blow my own head off with one of these grenades" [p. 145]. Is Stephen's curiosity ever finally satisfied?
10. Throughout the war, Stephen feels a real hatred for the enemy--see page 156, for example. Do you believe that this hatred is genuine, or that Stephen has persuaded himself of it so as to give meaning and order to his existence? How does the fact that it is German soldiers who ultimately rescue him change his life--and theirs?
11. Stephen is a brooding and enigmatic figure who is repeatedly described as "cold" by the narrator. Is Stephen a cold character? How do the other soldiers see him [on pages 141, 143-44, and 211]? When Gray asks Stephen whether he would give his life for his men, Stephen answers in the negative [p. 159]. Do you think he would give the same answer if he were asked this question during the last year of the war? What keeps him going during the war [pp. 156, 171]? Do you think that the war changes Stephen?
12. In the life of the trenches, Stephen reflects, "There was only violent death or life to choose between; finer distinctions, such as love, preference, or kindness, were redundant" [p. 194]. This is Stephen's view of events, reading his story. Do you find that the soldiers have really lost their sense of finer distinctions?
13. Haig and Rawlinson typify the World War I staff officers who lost the respect of their men because they didn't share the danger and squalor of the front line. High commanders on the Western Front usually established their headquarters in châteaux well behind the lines: historian John Keegan has called this phenomenon "château generalship." How did this manner of conducting war affect and form the way the twentieth century has looked at war? How did it change our ideas of military glory and our vision of our military leaders?
14. Stephen and Weir enjoy an unlikely but intense friendship. What is it about Weir's character that makes Stephen love him more than any of the others? What emotional need does Stephen fill in his turn for Weir? Does Stephen change in any way after Weir's death?
15. The soldiers "were frightening to the civilians because they had evolved not into killers but into passive beings whose only aim was to endure" [pp. 340-41]. How do civilians, in general, treat and respond to these soldiers? How do you explain the attitude of the clerk in the men's store where Stephen tries to buy shirts [pp. 342-43]? Do you find the behavior of Weir's parents extraordinary--or understandable in people far removed from actual battle? Have soldiers from later wars, such as the conflict in Vietnam, reported similar experiences and attitudes?
16. Why do you think that Stephen displays such an overpowering will to survive, in spite of the loneliness of his life and the unhappiness he has undergone? What elements and events of his life have contributed to his instinct for self-preservation?
17. Elizabeth is spurred on in her research by a feeling of the "danger of losing touch with the past" [p. 240]. Does her ignorance of recent history surprise you, or do you find it characteristic of her generation? Do you find that you, and the people around you, are similarly detached from the past?
18. What does Elizabeth, the granddaughter, represent? And her baby? In what ways does history repeat itself in her life?
19. Why has the author set this story about war against the backdrop of a passionate affair? Explore the various parallels drawn between desire and death, love and war, in the novel. In what ways are the love scenes similar to some of the battle scenes? How does the body take on different meanings [pp. 130, 197-98]?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
A truely remarkable book, mainly about WW1 war in the trenches. Harrowing narrative about the fighting that went on and the sights the soldiers were forced to endure, such brave men just discarded on the battle field of the Somme.The book starts off by introducing us to Stephen the main character a young man that hasn't experienced much love or affection in his life, is in France, he is staying with a family there and falls in Love with the wife. It doesn't work out and he becomes a father, but doesn't know, as his lover (Isabelle leaves him!) We meet Stephen again as an officer at the Somme. Other Characters are introduced to get a balance of perspectives with different backgrounds and ranks. The story also comes full circles as we get to know Stephens Grand-daughter, who investigates his past.An excellent read, harrowing but truely exceptional.
This book is a masterful mix of complex romance and WW I. The main character is Stephen, a thoughtful, complex Englishman. The novel starts several years before the war begins with an unexpected romance. The war is then explored in detail, as Stephen sees it. Sometimes the detail was a bit graphic, but I got past it. Right when you think you know what's going on, the action shifts to 1978 and a completely new character. Definitely a good read.
Sebastian Faulks grabbed me with his beautiful, haunting prose. He is thorough in developing his characters, and goes into more detail about sex and war than I ever considered. This book left me thinking about dreams and relationships.I brought this book with me on vacation, and looked forward to reading it whenever I had down time. My companions even asked me what was happening in the story!
xcellent, with the exception of the last 5 pages which were very cheesy and nearly overshadowed the rest of the book. The narrative jumps between two time periods. I found both interesting, but the WWI storyline was far longer and more in-depth, while the 1970s time had the feeling of being very tacked on. I was frustrated b/c the characters and story of the 1970s plotline were also compelling, but weren't nearly as explored or developed.
Very good. Good love story, great depiction of first world war. Highly recommended
Beautifully written. The descriptions from world War 1 are powerful and impressive. I don't think the second plot following the present day was necessary. I don't think there was any humour in this book, the characters all seem to take themselves seriously.
Excellent, poignantOne of the most memorable descriptions of WWI and the heart-stopping anxiety of traveling with the tunnelers. This book should be an example of the power of an author to communicate without overexplaining.Even if you're resistant (as I was) to being told "You MUST read this," take a deep breath and plunge in. You can always say 'never mind.'
I have to remind myself that this is a democratic process, and so not every book in this series of worthy reads will be in my top Hundred. But I read this one ages ago, long before I knew it was going to make any sort of list. People whose judgement I respect have waxed lyrical over it, but not me. Again, the subject matter makes a terrific dramatic setting ¿ World War One ¿ but I just didn¿t like it. Dialogue stilted and characters hard to believe. I hate books defeating me, so I¿ll usually work hard to get to the end of a book, but this was another that I felt nothing other than relief when it was all over. And somewhat oddly for me, I find it hard to recall the actual story of this one. So worth a look, but it didn¿t resonate with me.
Orphaned as a child and haunted by abandonment and lack of human connection, Englishman Stephen Wraysford faces a painful coming of age between the ages of 20 and 27. After his ill-fated love affair with a married Frenchwoman, he faces the horrors of WWI trench warfare. In his attempt to survive the effects of brutality and loss, he discovers his own will to live, and finds his place in the society of humankind. It is hard to understand how this was not a huge award-winner when it was published in 1993. It is a beautifully written tale, well researched and brought to astonishing life, as it weaves together the suffering of WWI with a moving romance and its optimistic outcome a generation later. Highly recommended.
The most moving war book I've read, this should be a must read for all politicians.
This book is regularly promoted as a modern classic in reviews, but I have to confess that I found Faulks' wartime narrative lacking in depth and impact. Remarque's 'All Quiet on the Western Front' is far more haunting and powerful at half the length, but then, he actually fought in the Great War. Reading war poetry and simple accounts of the hideous battles from soldiers' perspectives sends shivers down my spine, but Faulks' writing, for all his lyrical prose, didn't really move me at all. Perhaps Stephen Wraysford is an unsympathetic character, cold and slightly disturbed (even before going to war), but that shouldn't really make a difference in a story like this. The story is war, and characters are forged on the front.The first part of the novel is set in France, four years before the start of the war. Stephen Wraysford is sent to stay with the family of a wealthy manufacturer in a town on the River Somme (early locations obviously meant to jar with later events), where he pursues and seduces the 'repressed' wife of his host. The complexity of both Stephen and Isabelle's characters elevates this 'romance' above the usual cliched fairytale, but only just - Isabelle is like Anna Karenina, driven by desire to abandon her family, but unable to find happiness with her lover. Skip to 1916, and Stephen is now a moody officer in the British army, supervising the trenches around the Somme, leading up to the tragic and staggering losses of the offensive. Though I'm not particularly au fait with the order of battles and the battalions who fought, I think Faulks relates the complex military strategies well, but he doesn't really get across the fear and despair of the men. I can appreciate the horror of the trenches and the stark terror of the men going over the top, but could anyway, just from general awareness of historical events. This fictional account really isn't as effective as Wilfred Owen's poetry, or even a documentary on television, for conveying what it must have been like to fight in the First World War.The separate thread of Stephen's granddaughter in 1979 is similar to the narrative structure of Elizabeth Kostova's 'The Historian', framing the past, and just as unnecessary. Her ignorance is so baffling that I can only assume Faulks intended to contrast the self-absorption of 'modern' generation with the sacrifice of the fallen - I think even I would recognise the Thiepval war memorial, but she asks dumb questions before sagging in a heap and muttering, 'I didn't know, nobody told me!' (Nor does she believe that her grandmother died from 'flu in 1919!) The plot device of her pregancy and the neat, cyclical ending are contrived, just as Stephen's fate is far too politically correct and fanciful to be believed. An epic attempt that is worth a read (if only to educate the Elizabeths of today), but for an honest and emotional insight of the war, I would recommend Remarque's iconic book instead.
I absolutely loved this book that I thought I would hate! I'm not one to read anything having to do with wars (too violent for my tastes, I suppose), but this was chosen as a pick for my book club, so I really didn't have much choice. And I'm so glad it was! It was a book I never would have picked, and so would have missed out on what turned out to be a fantastic read.As much as I thought I knew about WWII, I certainly learned an immense amount. Both my grandfather and grandmother served in WWII, and though that was a different war, Birdsong gave me so much insight into what those soldiers went through. The shift in perspective was a bit confusing at the outset, but came to make sense and give the reader some relief to the oppression that Wraysford the other men must try to survive. This is a story that is haunting, tragic, redeeming, but in the end, one that I believe will stay with me for many years to come. I highly recommend this book.
Faulks's vivid prose captures better than any other novel I've read the experience of being a soldier in the trenches in World War I. Stephen Wraysford, recovering from a passionate romance that didn't work out as planned, finds himself, like so many other young men, struggling to survive in the tunnels, trenches, and fields of France. The descriptions of battles, bodies, and wounds are horrific; I couldn't help but think what a sanitized view of warfare we are given today. In the midst of it all, Stephen is torn between wanting to withdraw into himself--why make friends with a man who might be blown to bits beside you the next day?--and to retain a measure of humanity. There's a second story line, set in the late 1970s, as Stephen's granddaughter uncovers a series of family secrets; but it's the reality of war that makes this novel memorable.
Without a doubt, this was the most boring WWI/trench warfare book I have ever read. Both the characters and the plot were confusing. If I didn't have this dreaded compulsion to finish everything I start, this book would have been pitched by page 50. Yawn zzzzzzzzzzzzz
This book has appeared on so many 'important books' lists that I felt compelled to finally read it. And I am so glad I did. It is a romance but much more importantly than that it is a novel about the horrors of WWI. Powerful, moving and beautiful while at the same time horrifying and sad this book had me in tears and made me contemplate yet again the enormous sacrifice made by so many. The modern day story inserted into the WWI tale was disconcerting and offputting and I felt it somewhat unnecessary to the storyline but this would be my only criticism. As an Australian I wished I was reading about an Australian soldier or at least that there were references to the Australian contribution to the war effort but this is hardly a criticism of the book. I do agree with other reviewers that 'All Quiet on the Western Front' is probably the greatest WWI novel but Birdsong is also a must-read for anyone interested in what WWI was like for the men in the trenches.
The first of Sebastian Faulk I have read, and also the first book of fiction on World War I. Recovering from major surgery at home, and being somewhat emotional anyway, I found it difficult to get through this book, not because of the style or the content as such, rather the raw emotion I found in it. I would often find myself sobbing and have to put it away. Only to pull it out later or the next day and keep reading. It devastated me and made me want to read more of this genre, however, nearly 3 years later, I am still unable to read anything else on the 1st World War. Having said all that, I loved it.!!!!
Although I had long been aware of this book and even looked for it in the local library, partly because I have a considerable interest in WWI, I didn't actually get round to buying it until I read 'The Fatal Englishman' by Faulks (highly recommended) and realised what a good writer he really is.Birdsong is essentially in three parts - a long section set in provincial France before the war, telling the story of the 'hero' and a relationship he has; then his role in the War, together with various comrades; and interwoven with the second, the 1970s set story of the attempts by a descendant of the leading character to find out something about his time in the war.Most reviews tend to concentrate on the part of the book which is set in the war itself, but to my mind the best written part of the book is the first one, where the atmosphere of a town in France and a bourgeois family living in it is beautifully described, and the slow advance, emotional and physical, of Wraysford's feelings for Isabelle come across very realistically. The description of Wraysford's various travails in the war seem both realistic in relation to what happened in the war, and from an internal psychological perspective also. By combining his story with that of a group of tunnellers, Faulks is enabled to take Wraysford into a sort of earthy underworld of darkness, tunnels and fear which is lesser known than a lot of the events of the war.Opinion amongst readers about the third thread of the book seems divided. I didn't find it intrusive, but it is debatable whether anything is achieved. The woman concerned seems astoundingly ignorant of events in WWI but no doubt this is a plot device for revelation. On the whole I think the book could have done without this part.What one is finally left with is a feeling that men are fine creatures in some ways but very foolish, and that women have a good deal to bear in being the mainstay of humanity.