23 Jun 2012

Birdsong: a Review

Birdsong has received more attention after the BBC’s two-part TV adaptation of some of the story. Sebastian Faulks’ novel portrays both the intensely romantic and the shockingly realistic with brutally blunt quality. Through the use of an expertly formed structure, the novel spans over three generations, showing the harsh contrast between the trenches of the First World War and the relatively minute troubles of Elizabeth’s 1970s Britain.

The beginning of the novel begins with the young English protagonist, Stephen Wraysford, spiralling uncontrollably down into wild love affair with Isabelle Azaire in pre-war France. The reader has little idea of the way in which the awkward, spontaneous ‘boy’ will then enter the dark, strange and foreboding world of the tunnels beneath the trenches of No Man’s Land.

As the plot goes on, Faulks has a neat and resonant technique of introducing characters to us, the soldiers, and then killing them. Stephen, who we follow for the majority of the book, is alone: any one of his men (we can’t really call them friends to the awkward captain) who he starts to form a bond with dies. Weir, perhaps the only character we can call his friend (and, incidentally, probably my favourite character along with the good-natured Jack Firebrace), dies so quickly that the reader barely has time to digest it. A gap in the sandbags; his head goes past; and a German sniper shoots him. Dead. Such quick and unexpected loss is just one ways Faulks aims to convey the brutal reality of war.

This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded.
The brutality of war, however, is not the only message. We are alleviated from the bloody mud of the tunnels and trenches and placed neatly on the streets of England with Elizabeth, who is trying to find out the lost secrets of her grandfather in the war – an interest of many, it seems. In her search, she finds many things such as Brennan, a war veteran that fought under Stephen, who leaves her disappointed as he is little more than an elderly, urine-smelling shell that can barely tell her anything about his past. She does eventually find Stephen’s diary. On the 60th anniversary of the 1918 armistice-
There were interviews with veterans and comments from various historians. Elizabeth read it with a feeling of despair: the topic seemed too large, too fraught, and too remote for her to take on at that moment. Yet something in it troubled her.
The relative peace and minute issues of 1970s Britain stand in bitter contrast to Stephen’s terrors in war. The book portrays the same message as Slaughterhouse 5, but in a different way: the horrors of war are so poignant that it is almost impossible to convey them in words. Hence Elizabeth’s (and her generation as a whole) inability to completely understand; hence the awkward protagonist that cannot appropriately interact with characters such as Jeanne. 
Ambitious, outrageous, poignant, sleep-disturbing, Birdsong is not a perfect novel--just a great one.
Simon Schama said this about the novel and, in my opinion, it sums it up perfectly. A novel giving such a message as Birdsong should not be perfect: it aims at portraying the unspeakable terror that is war and its recurrent consequences for the people involved. These issues are not a forensically clean, perfect series of events.

This book is crafted from the ruinous destruction of war and the crushing resilience of love; it is one of my favourites, owe to its ability to throw the reader from one era or emotion to another in a clinical, but nonetheless intoxicating, fashion.

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