19 April, 2012

Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks. Book review

First published 1993. Edition reviewed, Vintage 2011, ISBN 978-0-099-52838-8. 503 pages.

Birdsong is set in Amiens, northern France, in 1910, on the battleground of the Somme in the First World War in 1916-1919, and in London in 1978-1979. All the main characters are fictional.

In 1910, Stephen Wraysford comes to Amiens to learn about the French textile industry. Staying with a local factory owner, he falls in love with his host’s unhappy wife Isabelle, and they begin an illicit love affair. Six years later, Stephen is a British infantry officer serving in the trenches, and strikes up an unlikely friendship with the men of a tunnelling unit working in his sector of the line. It is early summer in 1916, and the campaign that will become notorious in history as the Battle of the Somme is just about to start. Amid the unimaginable slaughter of industrial warfare, Stephen will find out if he has a reason to keep on living, or if his spirit has been crushed beyond all endurance.

The First World War left an indelible mark on Europe’s history. In England, even a small village will have its war memorial, with the roll-call of the dead from the First World War almost always exceeding that from the Second. Often the names come in heartbreaking clusters of identical surnames where brothers, sons or cousins all fell together, shattering families and communities. Travel through Northern France and the sheer scale of the military cemeteries, accentuated by their stark grandeur, is overwhelming. The Great War, as it was known, is a traumatic background in many a novel written in the decades following, even those that have nothing whatever to do with the war – aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey was traumatised from serving in the trenches, and the Dead Marshes of Lord of the Rings are another incarnation of the flooded shell-holes of the Western Front. And then there are the war poets, whose lines echo down the years to touch the soul.

So I approached Birdsong with some trepidation, hoping it would do justice to such a convulsive event. One reason why it has taken me so long to get around to reading it; I finally thought I should give it a try, since everyone else has. The war sections were the strongest aspect of the novel for me, especially the description of the first day of the Battle of the Somme and the account of the tunnellers, who fought their own private war deep beneath no-man’s land, attempting to drive mines and counter-mines under the opposing trenches. Occasional glimpses of civilian life back in England when the soldiers go home on leave make a powerful contrast with the appalling conditions at the front. Birdsong also gives a strong sense of the ghastly combination of terror and boredom in trench warfare. The book is well worth reading for the war sections alone.

I found the other two strands of the narrative - Stephen’s affair with Isabelle and his grand-daughter Elizabeth searching for information about the war and conducting her own love affair with a married man - less compelling. There are a great many references to ‘flesh and blood’ throughout the novel (it feels like every page), and perhaps these two strands are supposed to form some sort of symbolic parallel between sex (Stephen’s affair), death (the war scenes) and childbirth (Elizabeth’s baby). If so, it seems rather laboured, and may explain why neither of these two plotlines really came alive for me. Another reason may be the characterisation. Stephen is emotionally stunted, having never had anyone to love him as a child, and this gives him a cold, remote quality (even in the middle of a torrid sex scene). His relationship with Isabelle seems to be based on lust rather than love, and Isabelle’s side of the affair is not really explored. Stephen’s later relationship with Isabelle’s sister Jeanne, which is potentially much more interesting, is hardly touched on at all.

Elizabeth is a warmer character than Stephen, although still emotionally detached – she reflects at one point that she may have chosen a married man to fall in love with because she will not be expected to settle down with him and lose her independence. She is so far removed from the other two strands of the novel that it’s difficult to relate her to them, other than perhaps to provide some near-contemporary ‘relevance’ for readers to identify with. (As if readers cannot be expected to be interested in the experience of another time and place for its own sake?).

The writing style reinforces the impression of emotional detachment. It seems consciously ‘literary’, with lots of incidental detail and some nice turns of phrase. The sheer amount of detail makes the book very long; each detail may be telling in itself, but collectively I found they tended to act as a barrier. I always felt I was watching the characters, rather than being drawn into their experiences. This distant style is effective in the war scenes, where the events are moving in their own right. I found it less effective in the love scenes, where it made all the relationships seem distant. Possibly this is another reason why I found the two love narratives less compelling than the war sections.

Powerful description of the human cost of trench and tunnel warfare in the First World War, mixed with two rather less powerful love stories.


Rick said...

What have critical reactions to the book been like (if you've read them)?

Mixing together the horrors of the Western Front with a couple of weak love stories would seem to convey an implicit message the author probably did not intend!

Carla said...

I gather it's critically acclaimed, certainly there are quotes in the edition I read calling it a great novel, a modern classic, etc. The author is well known as a literary novelist.

Rick said...

Curiouser and curiouser!

Kathryn Warner said...

I know I read Birdsong a few years ago, but I can't for the life of me remember what happened in it, or what I thought of the novel. So it was interesting to read your take on it, Carla! Maybe I should read it again sometime.

Carla said...

Rick - Well, tastes vary :-)

Kathryn - It's interesting that you say that, because I'm finding that it's fading out of my memory surprisingly fast.

Anonymous said...

I read this some time ago and felt roughly as you did, although less badly about the earlier love story. However, the whole 1970s narrative seemed out of place to me. I figured that what was going on was a kind of attempt to show that even when things are as immediate and as final as the Great War and surviving from minute to minute, they still have consequences far in the future... but those consequences could have been much less banal. I thought that it would have been a better novel if it had avoided that; the culminating war scene in the tunnels was, for me, completely gripping and I couldn't guess which way he was finally going to twist it. To come back from that to mooching round suburbia was the worst kind of anticlimax.

Carla said...

tenthmedieval - Yes, I agree with you that the last war scene felt like the real culmination of the book. I found the whole 1970s sequence weak at best, and that last section so much so that it actually diminished the tunnel scenes (which takes some doing). Maybe the banality was intended, since Elizabeth reflects so often on the triviality of her own life as she finds out more about Stephen's, or maybe there was supposed to be something very profound about the childbirth scene.