🙂 🙂 🙂
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.