Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Hidden histories…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Two strangers in Paris for very different reasons meet, and through them the reader is taken to two important parts of France’s past – the Nazi occupation of France and France’s own colonial occupation of Algeria. Hannah is a post-doctoral student, in Paris to research a chapter for a book on women’s experiences during the Nazi occupation. Tariq is a 19-year-old from Morocco, who has left his comfortable home to try to find out more about his mother, a Frenchwoman who died when he was an infant.

I have very mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, I knew very little about either of the parts of history Faulks discusses, and found them interesting and well written, with a feeling of having been well researched. On the other hand, the whole framing device of Hannah and Tariq and their experiences is completely unconvincing – so much so that I had to jump over an almost insurmountable credibility barrier before the book had got properly underway.

I’ll get my criticisms out of the way first, then. Hannah has just arrived in Paris, on her own, when she comes across a homeless girl in the street, a complete stranger, who appears to be ill. So she takes her back to her flat, looks after her, leaves her there while she goes out to work and doesn’t mind when the girl moves a friend in – Tariq. Well, that’s all lovely, and nobody robs her or trashes the place and Tariq becomes the perfect lodger. But. Seriously? It simply would never happen, unless Hannah was nuts and we’re not led to believe that she is. Nor did I feel that a young man in Paris for the first adventure of his life would want to spend his time living with a thirty-something landlady.

The other thing that jarred was Faulks attempt to bring a kind of ghostly vibe into the story, as each becomes consumed by the history they are researching. I could have accepted it if there were only one of them – one could have put it down to overwork, stress, over-active imagination, etc. But both beginning to see and hear people and events from the past? Partly my problem with this was that it reminded me a little of how Hari Kunzru brought the past into the present supernaturally in White Tears, and that comparison worked to Faulks’ disadvantage, since Kunzru did it so much more effectively.

Outside the Moulin Rouge in 1941.

But once Faulks begins to let us hear the stories of the women during the Occupation, his storytelling rests on much firmer grounds. He does this by having Hannah listen to tapes made as a kind of living history project, when the women were elderly and looking back at their experiences. I found these stories compelling and often moving, and they carried me through my problems with the framing story. He is making the point that this is a period which France prefers not to examine too closely and tends to somewhat distort by suggesting that most people were either actively or passively resisting the Germans. Faulks suggests that in fact most people were willing to go along with whoever looked like they’d be the winner – their over-riding desire was to not have the same massive loss of life as in WW1 and they didn’t think much more deeply than that. It was only after the tide of war turned against Germany that women were vilified for associating with the German soldiers – Faulks suggests that before that it was commonplace and most people weren’t overly concerned about it.

The other side of the historical aspect – France’s troubled relationship with Algeria – isn’t done quite so well, with an awful lot of info-dumping. However, since I didn’t know a lot of the info I still found it interesting reading. Faulks is obviously comparing the two episodes as opposite sides of occupation, but I felt that was a little simplistic. More interesting was the comparison of how both events are downplayed in France – a hidden past that, Faulks seems to be suggesting, must come fully into the light before France can reconcile itself with its own history and properly understand its present.

Sebastian Faulks

I rather wish that, instead of having the present day framing and the double history, Faulks had simply taken us back to the days of the Occupation and told a straightforward story of the women caught up in events. Somehow, the art of plain storytelling seems to be considered old-fashioned at the moment, and books become unnecessarily complex as a result, laying themselves open, as this one does, to having parts that work and parts that don’t. My advice to all authors is – find an interesting story, tell it, then stop. Within that simple framework, all things are possible, from Frankenstein to The Lord of the Rings, from Pride and Prejudice to The Great Gatsby, from The War of the Worlds to War and Peace.

Overall, the good outweighed the less good for me with this one, but I feel it could have been excellent had it been more simply told. Nevertheless, recommended.

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

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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.

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Jeeves and the Wedding Bells by Sebastian Faulks

jeeves and the wedding bellsSpot on, Faulks, old chap! Simply spiffing!

😆 😀 😆 😀 😆

Those of you who kindly read my reviews on a regular basis will know that the thing that is most likely to make me spit, splutter and curse is someone messing with an author I love. And yet somehow, I can’t seem to resist. So when I heard that Sebastian Faulks was about to publish a new Jeeves book, I knew I had to read it as soon as it came out – and polished up both my spittoon and my curses in preparation…

‘And what was his attitude towards Georgiana?’
Jeeves considered. One could almost hear the cogwheels of that great brain whirring as he selected the mot juste. It was a pity that, when it came, it was one with which I was unfamiliar.
‘I should say his attitude was complaisant, sir.’
‘Complacent, do you mean?’
‘I fancy either adjective might apply, sir.’
‘Hmm.’ While unsure of the difference, I was fairly certain neither was quite up to snuff.

I’m delighted to admit I was wrong! Faulks has come up with something so close to perfect that I’m left with almost nothing to criticise. So let’s get my minor quibbles over straight away. Once or twice, Faulks brings us into the real world with a mention of deaths in WW1 or of Bertie’s loss of his own parents when he was very young – as we know, Wodehouse’s world rarely, if ever, impinged on the real one, especially in the Jeeves books. The plot has lots of things I loved, but one aspect is so far from the premise of the originals that, while enjoyable, it doesn’t ring completely true. And the story dips just a little in the middle, I felt.

‘ “Dear as remembered kisses after death, sir. And sweet as those by hopeless fancy feign’d On lips that are for others.”’
‘Is that helpful?’
‘It was intended by the poet Tennyson as a consolation, I believe, sir.’
‘Well, you tell him from me what to do with his consoling.’

BUT – Faulks has got the overall tone completely right and the dialogue, especially between Bertie and Jeeves, is wonderful! Scarcely a false note, throughout. The plot is suitably convoluted, we meet some old friends and the special sunshine of Wodehouse’s world is back to warm us all again.

Meanwhile I sprang from the bench like the fellow in his bath when inspiration suddenly struck him.
‘Bazooka!’ I cried.
‘It’s what that Greek chap said when – ’
‘You mean “Eureka!”’
‘Do I?’

Sebastian Faulks
Sebastian Faulks

When Bertie’s old chum Woody Beeching asks for Jeeves’ advice on how to patch things up with his fiancée, Bertie and Jeeves set off to Kingston St Giles to render assistance. A motley crew are collected under the roof of Melbury Hall – not just Woody, his girlfriend and her parents, but also Georgiana, a lovely young popsy Bertie had met before on the Côte d’Azur and, of course, fallen in love with. Add in Georgiana’s fiancé, a cast of servants, a couple of old school chums of Aunt Agatha, and a forthcoming village entertainment, and all the ingredients are there for a perfect Wooster stew. For typically Bertie-ish reasons, the situation is further complicated when Jeeves is mistaken for a Lord and Bertie has to play the part of Jeeves’ valet…

It was perhaps a mistake to remove one hand and try to steady the bowl from beneath, as it may have been this manoeuvre that caused the wretched thing to flip over. It was certainly, on reflection, an error of judgement to attempt to remove approximately five helpings of gooseberry fool from Dame Judith Puxley’s lap with a Georgian tablespoon.

In the introduction, Faulks explains that it is hoped a ‘new’ Jeeves will tempt new readers to read the originals. I’m happy to say that I would also heartily recommend this to the most die-hard Wodehouse fan – there may be tiny bits that jar, but the overall effect is totally wonderful – in fact, top hole, spiffing and really quite oojah-cum-spliff! The hardback is a lovely quality, with a good-size font and spacing, and the dustjacket is beautifully designed and nicely tactile. All-in-all – close your ears, Scrooges – a perfect Christmas gift. Enjoy!!

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