Birdsong, written by Sebastien Faulks is a World War I novel. This is my second war novel of the month and makes me wonder, for a person who has shied away from reading tragic war dramas all her life, why this sudden interest in war books. The only answer I could find, after hours of searching myself, is that the human depravity that I witness in my day to day life has made me curious to know to what level man could have sunk during the war. And it never fails to shock me as I unearth new layers of decadence in the human soul.
Recently, I read a few war books, The English Patient, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and What the Day owes the Night, but they were World War II books. Hence, when I read the excerpt and came to know Birdsong was based on WWI, I picked it up without giving it a second thought. I think I had read somewhere that WWII has monopolized the war of 14-18 because we find movies, literature and documentaries in abundance on the last world war, but little is known to the general public about the first one which had the direct consequence on the second.
So, let me now tell you more about the book.
The book is divided into 3 different time periods – before, during and post war. In the first (1910), Stephen Wraysford is a young and passionate Englishman who visits Amiens, France on business. He stays with a wealthy man – Rene Azaire and his family. Stephen comes to know that Rene beats his young wife, Isabelle as they are not able to produce a child together. Stephen falls in love with Isabelle and begins an affair with her. They quit Amiens and stay in Plombieres where Isabelle discovers she is pregnant. She leaves Stephen and goes back to Azaire without telling him that she was carrying his baby.
In the second time period (1916-1918), Stephen enlists himself into the war against Germany. He is a lieutenant of a platoon of infantrymen in the war. He is cold and unemotional and doesn’t fear death.
In the third time frame (1978-79), Elisabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter seeks information about her grandfather’s life during the war.
The first part is a clandestine love story and 100 pages into it, I almost felt like giving it up. The description was long and couldn’t hold my interest much. However, when the war started, that’s when the drama began too.
Stephen the protagonist, a 20-something love-torn man, proves to be cold, strong and resilient in the war. Over time, Stephen comes to care about the men he fights with and develops a form of friendship with two men; Captain Weir and Jack Firebrace, a middle aged tunneller. Stephen finds solace in their innocence and in their quest for survival.
I cannot write a review of this book without mentioning about the description of the trench. Trenches in this book have a character of their own.
The only things I knew about trenches before I read this book were Burberry trench coats and trench foot. However, reading this book gave me a clearer idea what it was like to live in the trenches thirty feet under the earth. Sebastien Faulks has spared no detail and narrated the warfare at its most honest, cruel and gruesome.
The tunnel rats who dig claustrophobic trenches and soldiers who live in them and carry out warfare against the enemy. The underground explosions that make the soil give away and bury the soldiers alive making the trenches living coffins.
The description is honest, clinical and unemotional making it more vivid and impactful. As I read through the pages where tunnel rats dig tunnels underground and lay mines under enemy lines, I could feel the fine hair on my arms standing up, when the loose earth falls on the soldiers and they find earth in their nose, eyes and mouth, I felt suffocated and had trouble breathing, when soldiers feel lice crawling on their clothes and hair, I scratched myself and when the enemy shelling bursts open someone’s brains, legs or guts, I sensed warm blood all over me. I have never read a narration more powerful and gut-wrenchingly real.
These words from the book got my heart racing and gave me some sleepless nights –
“He had to crawl over Evan’s body, then haul Jack off the cross and flatten himself on the tunnel floor so Jack could get over him and go back down the tunnel. Even twenty yards back they could not stand up, but they could crouch and stretch each limb in turn.”
“He was close to choking on Douglas’s blood. By the time the stretcher-bearers reached them Douglas had lost consciousness. They levered the inert body up, trying not to make the wound worse.”
“He was aware of earth in his eyes and nose, and of weight.”
“He tried to swallow, but could not gather enough saliva in his dry, earth-filled mouth.”
The last chapter about the war is truly remarkable as Faulks portrays man’s fear and hopelessness, endurance and struggle for survival, and then humanity springing in the most unimaginable way.
What didn’t work for me
The style of narration changes in all three time periods. The powerful narration of the war, unfortunately doesn’t stretch itself to pre-war and post-war stories, which is a sore point of the book. However, on the other hand, it helps provide respite from the overwhelming war description. Also, the female characters lack dimension. Why Isabelle leaves Stephen and then finds love in Max is not very clear? Even Elisabeth’s character could have been more developed. Only Jeanne comes out as the sane one and a breath of fresh air in the story.
The war is prominent throughout the book, it rules over the characters, emotions and drama.
The beauty of the book is not in its plot or story, but in reading the narrative of the war, in knowing how tunnellers and infantrymen lived in the trenches, engaged in trench warfare and formed a brotherhood with fellow survivors as only they know what it is to survive in cold and inhuman conditions, and in understanding how innocence and humanity are snuffed out little by little in the face of gruesome horrors.
If you like reading about war stories, I’d say pick up this one.
A few lines that will stay with me –
“I am driven by a greater force than I can resist. I believe that force has its own reason and it’s own morality even if they may never be clear to me while I am alive.”
“He’s frightened that it doesn’t make sense, that there is no purpose. He’s afraid that he has somehow strayed into the wrong life.”
“I saw the great void in your soul, and you saw mine.”
I am taking part in the Write Tribe Reading Challenge and I have opted to read 24 books this year (though I am hoping to read more). There are 24 prompts given, and this book adheres to three of them:
1) A book set in a country that you visited/want to visit