At long last, another installation in my adventures through the BBC’s 100 Books to Read list. Birdsong: A Novel of Love & War by Sebastian Faulks is a late 20th century novel about an English soldier in World War I. The book is thick with illusions to and imagery of blood and death. The first section is a love story, bringing together English Stephen Wraysford and French (married) Isabelle Azaire. The remainder of the book bounces between 1978 England and a young woman named Elizabeth Benson and the trenches of the first world war and Stephen Wraysford.
I felt as though I was reading three novels. A romance novel, complete with pages I wish I’d skipped due to their graphic content, a war novel in some ways akin to Catch-22, and a novel about discovering history and one’s ancestors. I was disappointed by this facet of the book. I wanted one, or the other, or even the third, but it was disconcerting to be jumping about through history and from one plot line to another. Perhaps it was that the technique wasn’t skillfully used, perhaps its because as a young blossoming writer I attempted the same stunt much to the detriment of my writing career. Whatever caused my aversion, aversion it was.
The narrative of Elizabeth Benson was unnecessary at best. While I would have appreciated a fully fleshed out novel about her discovering her grandfather’s involvement in the unknown history of the horrifically bloody Great War, as a bit and piece of the whole of Birdsong it was distracting.
Even the tempestuous love affair between Stephen and Isabelle felt unnecessary. Beautifully written, in its way, thick with oppressive death and muddied waters between the violence of love and the violence of war, it felt poorly connected to the war narrative. I also struggled to call it “love” at all. Memorable, yes. Passionate, yes. It also lauded adultery as the best option if you’re in an unhappy marriage, which I simply refuse to accept. I have to keep those feelings in the lust category.
The war narrative is the meat and potatoes of the novel, and undoubtedly the best part. I liked Wraysford the soldier, felt kinship with his torn feelings about war, ached for his loneliness. I enjoyed the gritty, harsh, deadly descriptiveness of the English trenches, the sense of confusion, even the sort of callousness that one develops toward death. Faulk’s style is enjoyable to read, even in the oppressive stench of the trenches.
I’m glad to be done with it. I was tired of the adultery, lust, loneliness, grit, grime, hopelessness, confusion, gruesomeness and figurative stench of the trenches. I wanted some light, some hope. Faulk’s tries to usher that in through the narrative of Elizabeth Benson and her continuation of Wraysford’s family line, the way she keeps his promise to a fallen comrade through a baby,and even the way that Wraysford and the few remaining WWI veterans are remembered and respected by her. However, the awkward conjunction of the stories, the uncomfortable and abrupt transitions through time and even the feeble unexpected ending with new life simply left one longing for a sense of real hope.
While definitely not a top read, if you are interested in war novels or the history of the Great War, this book may have something to offer you. I’ve moved on to something I hope will be more uplifting – Antoine Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince, a children’s story I’ve wanted to read since my French professor introduced the opening section to us (in French) back in college.