I had long seen Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks lying around my parents house before I decided to read it. I tend to shy away from war novels, finding them both depressing and complex in equal measures. I had, however, been recommended Birdsong by two of my best friends, Sian and Lexy, and thus decided it was high time to give it a go, with the added reward of ticking another book off the BBC’s Big Read.
Birdsong tells the story of a man called Stephen Wraysford and is set against the backdrop of WW1. Split into seven sections across three different time periods in concentrates on Stephen’s life both before and during the war, and also on the life of his granddaughter, Elizabeth as she attempts to trace her grandfather’s history.
The book is, without doubt, a beautifully written novel. I did, however, struggle somewhat with the three different time-spans the book covered. In the first instance, which covered Wraysford’s life prior to WW1, I found Birdsong to be utterly compelling and could barely put it down. Set in Amiens, France, Wraysford is sent to work in a textile factory owned by René Azaire, with whom he also stays. Intrigued by Azaire’s young wife, Isabelle, they engage in a passionate affair. Rife with tension, reckless behaviour and overwhelming desire, Faulks delivers a poignant illustration of the limitless boundaries of passion.
We then move forward to France, 1916, when following the end of Stephen and Isabelle’s relationship, he is now a lieutenant in the British Army. And so follows a depiction of life during the war in which, amongst the trenches and the bombings, themes of loneliness and companionship, of fear and of bravery are tenderly explored. Much of the novel’s power derives from Faulks’ descriptive writing style, in which he skillfully brings the war to life. And while I am not a fan of war themed novels I can appreciate the elegance with which Faulks writes.
The final part of the novel is based in the present day and sees Wraysford’s grand-daughter in her attempt to trace his history, having found his journals that he wrote during the war. It offers a clear juxtaposition to the harrowing story of the war itself.
Birdsong cleverly fuses both romance and blood, in what has been described as a modern masterpiece; the atrocities of war described in this novel will stay with you long after the final page has been turned.