Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

birdsongLest we forget…


🙂 🙂 🙂

Birdsong is undoubtedly one of the best known modern novels about World War I so it’s not surprising that a new edition has been issued to coincide with the centenary. I avoided it when it was going through it’s initial huge success – to be honest, I try to avoid books about war as often as possible; not easy when you live in a country as obsessed as Britain is by the two big wars of last century. However, Faulks swam onto my horizon recently with his very good Jeeves homage and so I was tempted to read the book that he’s most famous for.

The sweat ran down into his eyes and stung them, making him shake his head from side to side. At this point the tunnel was about four feet across and five feet high. Jack kept sticking the spade into the earth ahead of him, hacking it out as though he hated it.

Battle of the Somme 1916
Battle of the Somme 1916

There are three main parts to the book, and the connecting thread between them is the main protagonist Stephen Wraysford. By far the best written and most emotional part of the book is the middle section, when Stephen is on active service in the trenches of WW1. Faulks’ depiction of the mud and filth of the trenches, the bloodiness and horror that the troops faced on a daily basis, the sheer exhaustion and increasing hopelessness as the war wore interminably on, is convincing and sickening in equal measure. Faulks splits this part of the narrative so that we partly follow Stephen, an officer with certain privileges, and partly some of his men, especially Jack Firebrace, a miner who is digging tunnels for the laying of mines. As the war drags on, Faulks shows the futility of the small gains and losses for which so many lives were lost or shattered. There is a tendency for Faulks to take it too far on occasion – to slip almost into bathos, as he piles one tragedy after another on the same poor soldier’s head. And I found it a little trite that the only German officer we met was a patriotic German Jew. But putting these issues aside, this main part of the book is well worth reading and would probably have gained it a five-star rating from me.

The mine tunnellers
The mine tunnellers

BUT – unfortunately there are the two other sections. The third part is a rather pointless and extraneous strand set in the 1970s, when a descendant of Stephen sets out to find out what happened to him. This section is only there so that Faulks can give a pointed little ‘Lest We Forget’ message, suggesting that indeed we have forgotten and must now remember. I felt the main part of the book had made that point adequately without it needing to be emphasised with all the subtlety of a baseball bat to the head.

Bombardment of Amiens
Bombardment of Amiens

Once when he had stood in the chilling cathedral in Amiens he had foreseen the numbers of the dead. It was not a premonition, more a recognition, he told himself, that the difference between death and life was not one of fact but merely of time. This belief had helped him bear the sound of the dying on the slopes of Thiepval.

And then there’s the first section – the pre-war love story, when young Stephen has an affair with the older wife of the man in whose house he is staying. I say love story, but it is actually a lust story – the two lovers rarely talk other than to decide where next they can have sex. And unfortunately, Faulks just doesn’t have what it takes to make sex sound like fun. As he gives us detail after detail of each positional change, each bodily fluid and its eventual destination, each grunt, groan and sigh, I developed a picture of poor Elizabeth, the love interest, as one of those bendy toys that used to be so popular. As so often in male sex fantasies, her willingness, nay, desperation, to have sex with Stephen knows no bounds, so we’ve barely finished the cigarette after the last session before we’re off again. Oh dear! It honestly is some of the worst written sex I’ve ever read. (I wonder if anyone has considered marketing it as a form of contraception?) And this affair which is so important at the beginning of the book fades almost entirely into the background and seems to serve very little purpose thereafter.

Sebastian Faulks
Sebastian Faulks

All-in-all, I found the book very unbalanced – some great writing, some poor writing; a fragmented plot that perhaps tries to do too much; and a tendency on Faulks’ part not to trust his readers, but to feel he had to beat his ‘message’ into them with a blunt instrument. Although the section about the war is powerful and emotive, the rest of the book didn’t really work for me at all. I’m finding it hard to decide whether I’d recommend it or not, to be honest…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Random House Vintage.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

49 thoughts on “Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

  1. Great review – Birdsong is an interesting novel but it was definitely over-hyped & has it’s shortcomings, as you say. You’re not alone in thinking Faulks can’t write sex scenes – he won the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction award for Charlotte Gray!

    • HahaHA! Really?? I actually meant to look if any other reviewers had mentioned the awfulness of the sex scenes or if it was just me, but ran out of time – so that’s really reassuring to know… 😉

  2. FictionFan – I have to agree. There are so many books around about war. And while I agree completely that we should not forget the horror and loss of war, there is perhaps such a thing as ‘sated’ when it comes to the topic. Sorry to hear you found this uneven. And I had to chuckle at your comment about the sex scenes. This one may be famous, but as remarkable as it’s made out to be? Ermmm….perhaps not.

    • ‘Sated’ is exactly right, Margot! I remember protesting even in school, decades ago, when one year every single set book was about WW1. I seriously don’t think we’re in any danger of forgetting…

      I was going to quote one of the sex scenes in the review…but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it in the end… 😉

  3. *laughing* I love how you subtly rip! It’s just fantastic. The baseball bat and the “first section” paragraph! *laughs more* You’re just a skilled ripper, I think, now. (I may be surprised you rated it as high as you did. The second part must have been tops.)

    Does he talk at all about battle plans and strategies? (He needs a haircut.)

  4. Great review! Like Madame Bibliophile, I remembered Faulks winning an award for bad sex writing, but I also remember liking this book when I read it years ago. Perhaps it was refreshingly candid at the time, rather than glossing over the horrors as so many victor’s accounts did.

    • Thanks, Angela! Haha! I’m really pleased about the bad sex award – I was worried maybe it was just me! Yes, I think it probably would have been more effective at the time, but there’s been so much written about the war since, and so many films, documentaries etc…the impact is probably diluted now.

  5. “(I wonder if anyone has considered marketing it as a form of contraception?)” <— priceless!!!

    Now I'm wondering if it will put me to sleep if I watch the TV series. I certainly do not want to endure what you did. You have done readers a great service.

  6. Now I’m with AngelaSavage I liked this book enormously when it first came out, and have remained admiring of Faulks. And, sorry to buck the trend, but I found the first section erotic. That was of course over 20 years ago as i read it pretty much as soon as it came out, and I was much younger then. Weren’t we all. Except, of course, those who were not even conceived 20 years ago.

    But then you might surmise purple passages might be approved fiction here………..

    • No! It’s not possible! These weren’t purple – they’d have been blue, if they’d been a little less icky! I was going to quote a section but couldn’t bring myself to – but I’m going to e-mail it to you…and if you tell me that you find it erotic, I’ll…I’ll…well, I don’t know WHAT I’ll do!! 😉

        • Haha! I’m so delighted! I was worried for a moment that I’d finally completed my transformation into old fuddy-duddy! The most worrying aspect about it is that my Victorianly-prudish mother loved this book. Shocked, I am! Shocked, I tell you!!

          • Does this then turn me into your Victorianly prudish mother (despite agreeing that the ahem excerpt was not erotic) I suspect what I found erotic was the whole building up of charge rather than necessarily certain graphic details

            • I’m having this image of you and my mother sitting together discussing what you liked about the sex scenes. I’m not feeling terribly well…

              *knocks back 3 double whiskies in quick succession*

  7. I read this when it first came out and do remember being impressed by it, but I think I was a very much less sophisticated reader then (not that I can claim to that much sophistication now!) and when it was televised and there was also the stage version I found that I didn’t want to go back to it. In fact, the only other book by him that I’ve enjoyed was ‘Engleby’ and that spilt our reading group almost more than any other book we’ve read.

    • Yes, the stuff about the war is well done overall and that’s the bulk of the book really. But I don’t think this one would really encourage me to seek out more of his stuff – especially if it doesn’t come with a cast-iron promise that he won’t try to write about sex! 😉

  8. Great review! Love your comments about the first section of the book. I started reading Birdsong a few years ago but sadly didn’t get past the first few chapters. Perhaps I’ll try reading it again, if only just so I can read the middle section as you praise it so highly 🙂

    • Haha! Thanks, Gemma – he brought out my sarcastic side, I fear… 😉

      The middle section is worth reading and since I now know that the love story is completely separate from the war stuff, I’d have no hesitation in saying skim read that first part if you find it as tedious as I did. And although the third section annoyed me, it’s quite short and interspersed into the end of the second section. If you do read it, I look forward to hearing what you think. 🙂

  9. Great review! For some reason, I’ve never been that drawn to this novel and now I feel like that reaction has been validated! There are some great WWI novels out there – it’s a popular subject in Canada too!

    • I never was either, and then when it was reissued I got sucked in somehow – I kinda wish I hadn’t! Yes, I guess most of the nations who were involved are still a bit obsessed by it, but I agree – there are better books out there.

  10. Glad to have you confirm my initial reaction to this at the time, which was that in a world which contained books by Graves, Sassoon, Remarque, etc., etc., who were actually there, fictional versions were unlikely to add to the sum of knowledge. And I didn’t even know about the sex – I wonder if Our Mother understood (or indeed even read that bit – my guess is that MiddleSister, who gave it to her, probably told her to start at part 2. Great review, but I don’t think Faulks will be joining your fan-club anytime soon!
    Be interesting to see if I have a name today. BUS.

    • Yes, I don’t think I’ve read the Graves but the other two were forced upon me at a tender age at school – and that was really sufficient for me! But I suppose each generation is bound to rewrite the stories…

      I don’t know about Mum – I’m pretty sure she read it more than once. I also seem to remember her trying to persuade me to read it! I find this all much more shocking than the war quite frankly! 😉

      No, you’re still anonymous, I fear. Did you try logging in again?

  11. Can I just say right now that I enjoy your reviews immensely? I won’t say it until you answer.

    I don’t smoke, so I probably shouldn’t read the first part. And I’m not into the “lest we forgets,” so I probably shouldn’t read the third part. And I despise eating the middle of a sandwich without its bookends, so I think I’ll leave it for someone who’s in greater need of a snack. Perhaps a stray vulture will come by and snag it.

    • Haha! Please…feel free! Seriously, though, thank you very much! I’m most honoured. 😀

      Well, you’ll be glad to hear I won’t be doing any arm-twisting with this one. Frankly by the time I’d read the first section, I’d gone off all food for a while, not just sandwiches… 😉

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