I might have to read Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks again, because a week after finishing the book I’m still thinking about the story. The writing is beautiful and the story made me feel too emotional at times to continue reading.
I added Birdsong to my list for the Classics Club after reading several other books by this author (Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, A Week in December and A Possible Life), all of which I enjoyed.
Birdsong begins with Stephen Wraysford as a young Englishman who travels to Amiens in France in 1910 for business reasons. During this time, he and the wife of the man who he is supposed to be learning the business from fall in love and run away together. When Isabelle becomes pregnant, she becomes afraid their relationship will fail and she disappears, leaving Stephen bereft.
The story then jumps ahead in time to World War One, where Stephen is now an English officer fighting in France. This is the spot when the story started to become meaningful to me. I had enjoyed the evolution of Stephen and Isabelle’s romance and was disappointed when she got the jitters and left him, but that all seemed like fluff once I became entrenched in Stephen’s war.
The physical descriptions of being in the trenches, in the dirt and mud, surrounded by smells left me feeling awful, but they were nothing to the emotions the characters experienced as they waited to leave the trenches to fight, or to be killed in the attempt to take enemy ground. At times I was shivering with fear. I felt an adrenaline rush when the soldiers did and I felt relief when they were injured or went on leave. The letters the soldiers wrote to their loved ones before battle had me in tears. Realising alongside a group of soldiers marching to the frontlines that the massive hole being dug will be many of their grave site gave me a physical shock.
Stephen, who believed he would never again experience the closeness he had with Isabelle, was a cold and distant officer whose men did not love or respect him. He resisted taking leave and had just a single friend, Michael, a Captain in the army. As an orphan, Stephen received no letters or communications with anyone outside of the war until he met Isabelle’s sister Jeanne by chance when he was sent on leave to a town near the battlefield.
Stephen’s story during the war is interwoven with that of Jack Firebrace, a miner employed by the British Army to build tunnels. Jack’s story of working in the tunnels was equally as intriguing as Stephen’s story and I believe he could easily have become the main character in this story.
The other timeline in Birdsong was that of Stephen’s grand-daughter, Elizabeth, who during the 1970s became interested in and so investigated what Stephen had done in the war. Elizabeth tracked down several soldiers who had known Stephen. One of these men had been in a mental asylum since the war.
Certain sections of the story are so beautifully written and filled with meaning that I re-read them several times. Others made me snort, or sniff. The following made me laugh in a macabre way:
An officer was reflecting on the danger from snipers caused by sandbags at the top of the trench parapets being disturbed by soldiers sliding back to safety. “The unexpected bullet through the head provided a quiet, relatively clean death, but it was demoralizing to the nerves of the others.”
The lesson in Birdsong seemed to me to be that there is no end to what a person can be driven to do. In this instance, the war was the excuse for the extreme behaviour of the masses. Time and again Stephen questioned how far men could be driven to kill before they stopped and said they would not continue in their madness, but this point was never reached. Instead, countless lives were lost or destroyed as the horror of the war continued.
Birdsong was book five for my Classics Club challenge to read 50 classics before my challenge end date of 26 August 2023.