Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘Sebastian Faulks’

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks


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.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks


After reading Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, Sebastian Faulks’ homage to P.G. Wodehouse, I jumped on this author’s bandwagon, reading A Possible Life and A Week in December in quick succession.

A Week in December is told over the course of a week in December 2007, in London. A politician’s wife is organising a dinner party, a hedge-fund manager works to carry out a trade so big that it will take down a number of banks, a wealthy business man prepares to be honoured with an OBE, a Polish footballer tries to fit in to his new club, a young lawyer hopes for some clients, a teenage boy risks his mental health for his drug addiction, a jaded book reviewer allows his jealousy of fiction-writers to get the better of him, a young woman risks falling in love and a young Muslim man who should know better uses Islamic theory to justify belonging to a group who plan to bomb a London hospital.

You may be able to tell from my previous sentence that A Week in December had too much going on, too many characters and too many stories. I couldn’t keep track of them all and would have preferred to follow just one or two of the stronger character’s stories.

I also struggled to believe in all of the characters. For example, Hassan, the would-be suicide-bomber, is from a wealthy industrialist English-Pakistani family, has loving parents and has had an excellent (English) education. Really? Maybe my view of terrorists is stereotyped, but I don’t think they usually spring from this particular set of circumstances. Another character, a businessman who is to be awarded the OBE hires the book reviewer to teach him about books, in case he and the Queen get into a conversation about literature. Again, really? Where did that come from? Successful business people are usually socially adept and unlikely to do anything so silly. On the other hand, I did believe in Jenni, the train driver, who after work reads novels and plays an internet game where her alter-ego lives the life that Jenni wishes she lived.

While telling the story, the author gave pages and pages of explanations about hedge-fund trading, the mechanics of driving a train, the connection between drugs and schizophrenia, and how terrorists find each other, make and execute their plans. The research must have been interesting for the author, but I felt as if his learnings were too obviously used in this book.

I also felt as if one of the character’s lack of respect for the Koran was too clumsily used as a tool to disparage Islam. Maybe the author hoped a would-be terrorist would read A Week in December and be swayed by this character’s argument that the Koran was bombastic, sexist and unlikely to present a true version of what happens to a terrorist after death. If so, great. However, I expect most Muslim readers would be offended by the use of this character to undermine their religion. I don’t believe in much myself, but I do understand that faith is believing in something which can’t be proved to exist, which is not unique to any religion.

I loved Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, liked A Possible Life and disliked A Week in December. I’m going to give myself a break from Sebastian Faulks before reading Birdsong by this author, as this story has been highly recommended and I don’t want to spoil it for myself.




A Possible Life by Sebastian Faulks


Sebastian Faulks’ homage to P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells made such a good impression on me that I couldn’t resist A Possible Life by this same author.

Talk about chalk and cheese. Jeeves and the Wedding Bells, though excellent, is a light, frivolous and fun story. In complete contrast, A Possible Life is a thought-provoking, serious look at human life. Both stories however, are beautifully written and left me feeling completely satisfied.

A Possible Life is made up of five separate stories which are tied together by the theme of self-awareness, something which manifests in this story as the main characters in each story wanting to be someone else, for various reasons. Several of the locations used in these stories touch very lightly on each other and a religious statue which shows up in several stories, but otherwise I could find no other connections between the characters in each separate story.

The first story is called A Different Man and follows the life of Geoffrey Talbot, an ordinary, cricket-loving Englishman. Geoffrey is middle class, attended an ordinary school and lived an ordinary life as a teacher until WW2, when he became a member of an ‘irregular force’ in France, delivering messages and aiding the French Resistance until he was captured by the Germans. After the war, Geoffrey was unable to forget the terrible things he was forced to do as a prisoner and he spent time in a mental asylum before taking up teaching again. Reading about Geoffrey’s sad and solitary life after the war left me feeling in despair, until the day he decided that he had lived his life for long enough.

The Second Sister is the second story and is told by Billy Webb, whose family were so poor during Victorian times they had to leave him at a poorhouse. When Billy’s father was able to bring him home again, Billy made the most of his opportunities and when he was able, brought a girl from the poorhouse home to live with him whom he eventually married. As Billy became more affluent he also took on the responsibility of his wife’s sister and her mother. One of these women motivated Billy to become a better and different version of himself.

Everything Can be Explained leaps into the future, to Italy in 2029 and tells the story of a young girl whose parents adopt a boy about the same age as the their daughter. The boy and girl grow to know and love each other but a tragedy separated them when they were teenagers. The girl grew up to be a scientist who discovered a particular link in the brain which explains why humans have a soul, and are “burdened with the foreknowledge of their own death – a weight no other creature had to bear.”

A Door into Heaven is the shortest of the stories, and tells of a poor Frenchwoman who worked as a nurse for a relatively well-off family. I felt the least connection with this story or character, who was the least self-aware of all of the characters in this novel.

The last story is titled You Next Time. This story is told in the first person by a successful musician in the 1970’s who fell in love with a young woman on the brink of her own stardom.

I felt that each story in this collection could have been expanded into a novel. What each character was prepared to give up to live a different life was fascinating.

I’ll probably give myself a longer break before reading another book by Sebastian Faulks, as I’ve read Jeeves and the Wedding Bells and A Possible Life within a few weeks of each other, but know I will enjoy and be challenged by whatever I read next by this author.





Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks


Sebastian Faulk’s homage to P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells is a happy read which captured the spirit of the real thing well enough to have pleased me.

Like most fans of P.G. Wodehouse, I go on reading jags where I immerse myself in these good-hearted, absurd stories, and have a particular fondness for Bertie Wooster and his man, Jeeves. I have read and re-read these books, so was both anxious and excited to find an author who had continued writing these stories for those of us who can’t get enough of them.

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells starts unusually, with Bertie awoken at 6am by that monstrous device otherwise known as an alarm clock, after lying all night on what he referred to as a bed of nails. Bertie then made his way to the kitchen of the house to make a cup of tea for his master, Lord Etringham. Even more confusingly, in the kitchen Bertie is addressed by the housekeeper as ‘Mr Wilberforce.’ Bertie then took the tea tray to Lord Etringham, who turned out to be Jeeves sitting up in a comfortable bed in a lavish room, wearing Bertie’s burgundy dressing gown.

The story then goes back a little bit, to explain how this exchange in situation happened. Bertie and Jeeves were on holidays in the south of France when Bertie met a girl, which, as all P.G. Wodehouse fans know, often happens. The girl who was met needed help with a ticklish problem. Say no more. Bertie and Jeeves to the rescue.

The language in this story is spot on. Bertie comes out with all of the sort of things you would expect him to say and so does Jeeves. The other characters are perfect too. There are aunts to be avoided, a delightful heroine, ridiculous friends and seldom-seen lords who are easily impersonated.

One of the characters in the story is a travel writer whose books are titled; By ‘Train to Timbuctoo,’ ‘By Sled to Siberia’, and so on. I brought this up with He Who Eats All of Our Leftovers and Miss S while we were eating our dinner and we enjoyed going through the alphabet to make up other ridiculous titles. My favourite was By Stilts to Serbia. We struggled with a few of the letters but we surprised ourselves with our creativity. Try it yourself, it’s fun (and slightly addictive).

I was surprised by the ending because this story ends in a way for Bertie and Jeeves which is entirely new. I’d love to say more but can’t, as to do so would spoil this story for future readers.

As the son of a judge and an actress, Sebastian Faulk’s bio reads as if he could be a character in these stories himself.

I didn’t laugh out loud reading this book, but I definitely smiled a few times. I recommend Jeeves and the Wedding Bells for P.G. Wodehouse fans and as a stand-alone novel, and am looking forward to reading further works by this author.



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