Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is a masterpiece that sat on my shelf for far too long. I bought this novel for my AS/A level English literature class, placed it on my shelf and didn’t touch it for about three years. Part of this avoidance was the length of the book, part of it was the subject matter – I already had so many other books I wanted to read, this 503 page war book was so far down my TBR I’d practically forgotten I owned it.
To be honest I am sorry that I left reading this book for so long, although also grateful that I didn’t have to study the text and was able to simply enjoy the brilliance of Faulks.
The plot revolves around Stephen Wraysford, a young man who is visiting France due to this job. A series of events result in him staying in France for some time, until the outbreak of war convinces him to go home in order to join the English army and fight. From here the story becomes one that is meticulously detailed and wonderfully emotional. Faulks’ focus on life in the trenches, the men who lived, worked and died in them, and the aftermath of it all is truly astounding.
Faulks’ creation of character is faultless, not just the ‘main’, but smaller roles of the soldiers and brothel workers. The world and the characters are so real it’s easy to forget that it is a work of fiction. Through this you’re really invited into the war the men’s lives. It’s an emotional read, but so worth it.
Having studied WW1 countless times, visited Ypres and walked through trenches, I thought I knew a lot about the war and the conditions the men lived in. However, Faulk’s writing reminds you of the individual stories, of the small elements of everyday life as a soldier missing his family back home. The information Faulks provides on things such as tunnelling during the war is something that I knew little about and was grateful to be educated on.
Spoiler The narration of 1970s Elizabeth was interesting, especially when old characters were reintroduced. However, I felt that it wasn’t always a welcome break from Stephen’s story. Whilst I liked the idea of connecting past and present, I didn’t feel that interesting in Elizabeth’s love life or her car not starting when she wanted it to.
‘I don’t know your life history, but I think children need to believe in powers outside themselves. That’s why the read books about witches and wizards and God knows what. There is a human need for that which childhood normally exhausts. But if a child’s world is broken up by too much reality, that need goes underground.’
A must read for anyone and everyone as a reminder of the realities and consequences of war. Faulks’ writing is astonishingly realistic and stylistically a masterpiece.