Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Birdsong is brilliant. It’s not the most beautiful or lyrically written novel in the world, but it’s not trying to be. What it excels at is being a fantastic piece of storytelling; gripping, evocative, emotionally engaging, cleverly plotted with complex characters; I adored every minute, even though it was often painful to read.

The novel opens in Amiens in 1910, then a prosperous provincial town on the Somme, filled with shady avenues, large stone houses and cobbled courtyards dappled with sunlight. Stephen Wraysford, a twenty year old orphan who works in the textile industry, has come to Amiens on a business trip. He is staying with the owner of the town’s largest textile factory, Rene Azaire, and his family, consisting of his young wife Isabelle and his two children. Stephen is immediately arrested by Isabelle, who has an unconventional beauty and a whimsical personality. On his first night in the house, Stephen overhears Rene beating Isabelle, and he determines to rescue her. At first Isabelle resists Stephen’s overtures, concerned about the consequences, but before long they have begun a heady, reckless, passionate affair, stealing moments wherever they can to spend time together. In Isabelle, Stephen finds the first person who has loved him, and whom he loves in return, submerging all of the sadness, loneliness and disappointment of his youth beneath her affection. In Stephen, Isabelle finally finds someone who understands and appreciates her for who she is, and who allows her to satisfy the desires she has always kept suppressed under the surface of her loveless marriage. Desperate to be together, the pair escape, ending up in a remote town where they set up home. However, in the cold light of day, Isabelle’s conviction wavers, especially when she finds out that she is pregnant. One day, when Stephen is at work, she leaves, without telling him about their child. Stephen is grief stricken. They have only been together a few months, but it has been the most profound happiness he has experienced, and her loss is devastating. His life becomes an empty shell, devoid of love, happiness, and a meaningful connection with the world around him. At 20, he is already a lost soul.

This all happens in the first 100 pages of the book, and then we are plunged into the British front line trenches in the mud of rural France, six years on from the previous section. Stephen is now a hardened Officer, known for his coldness and disliked by his men. He is emotionally distant, unable to empathise with or respect those he is serving alongside. His closest friendship is with Captain Weir, a shy thirty something virgin from Leamington Spa, whose nervousness and dependency brings out an unexpected softness in Stephen. Captain Weir is head of the mining unit, who tunnel beneath the mud of no man’s land to create underground labyrinths from which the Germans can be spied on and blown up in their trenches. We follow Stephen, Captain Weir and the various members of their companies over the next two years as they fight for their lives in the sodden trenches and tunnels that are heaving with corpses and rats, blood mingled amongst the mud and rainwater that gives the air a constant smell of decomposition. We’ve all seen the cliches before; the scenes of carnage, the noise, the terror – but somehow Faulks manages to bring a freshness and an immediacy that rivals the memoirs of Sassoon and Graves. He brings the war to life on the page, interweaving the often horrific, unbearably tense scenes of action with the incredibly moving personal lives and interior emotions of the men, who are sensitively and realistically drawn. As the war drags on, Stephen changes, becoming more vulnerable, more withdrawn, weary in body, mind and spirit, desperately seeking a point to the horror of everything he has lived through. Throughout it all, he is sustained by the memory of Isabelle, and when he has the unexpected chance to visit Amiens on leave, he goes in search of her. What he finds will change his future, but not in the way he expects…

Interspersed with the action on the Front, there are also brief snippets set in the 1970s, telling the story of Elizabeth Benson, Stephen’s now thirty something granddaughter who is having an affair with a married man and trying to work out what she wants from her life. She finds the coded notebooks Stephen kept throughout the war in her mother’s loft, and through these, we find out more about Stephen and understand in greater detail the legacy he left behind. By bringing Stephen’s memory alive for Elizabeth, Faulks makes the point that even in our age, when the great wars are no longer in living memory for the majority, they have a relevance and an importance that we should never be tempted to forget.  We also appreciate through Elizabeth’s dilemmas that much of the human experience is universal, and the search for completeness is something we all yearn for, no matter what we live through.

This is such a moving novel that paints a vivid canvas not only of war, but of love, of grief, of friendship, bravery and the incredible endurance of the human spirit. No one had participated in a war of such mass destruction before WWI; men had never been made to follow orders into certain death, watching their  friends mown down before them, but being forced to walk on, on, on, into the hail of bullets that promised to rip them to shreds, all in the name of King and Country. How much fear, how much horror, how much violence and pain and grief can humans take? Through the men from all walks of life Faulks portrays, he sensitively explores the depths of the human soul, which even, amidst the worst men can do to one another, flutters with hope, like the birdsong that can still be heard amidst the corpses of No Man’s Land. It might not be written with prose that takes your breath away, but it is still a very thought provoking, beautiful book that I was addicted to from the very first page. I haven’t felt so invested in a novel for a very long time; when it comes to telling a story that is both emotionally and intellectually engaging, Sebastian Faulks has done a remarkable job. Stephen Wraysford especially is a magnificent creation; complex, fascinating, infuriating and heartbreaking in equal measure – I feel really quite haunted by him. I don’t normally read contemporary novels, as you well know, but this has made me reconsider what I might be missing. Sebastian Faulks has restored my faith in modern authors who aren’t interested in prizes and accolades, but merely write bloody good stories in clear, unpretentious prose that sweep you away, immersing you in a totally different world and giving you enormous amounts of pleasure in doing so. Isn’t that what novels are for, really? Please read it; I know you’ll love it!

62 comments

  1. I have picked up Sebastian Faulk’s books before and yet put them down again. I think I might be picking this one up as I see online that our library has it. Have written it down. I would love to know how your students respond to it. Seems like a marvelous choice for a curriculum read. Like you say, if they can’t get into all of that ……..
    Good luck with it and thanks for writing such a great review of it. Pam

    1. I’m glad you’re going to give it a go, Pam – I’m intrigued as to what you will think of it. I will certainly be reporting on my students’ opinions of books – it will be fascinating to me how they react to this, as there already seems to be quite a range of opinions just on this comment thread! Thank you very much, I appreciate your good wishes Pam!

  2. Underwhelmed is exactly how I would describe the BBC’s adaptation of “Birdsong”, Rachel. Something I rarely feel about what comes from the BBC, as you are surely aware. Thanks to this exemplary review you put forth, I will definitely look to read Faulk’s book. You are going to be such a wonderful teacher, dear soul. The passion you bring to literature will hold forth and the thought of you “out there” bringing the young closer to the printed word gives me hope in the future. It truly does.

    That is quite an age span, 11 – 18 year olds; going from adolescents to young adults.

    1. Yes it was pretty dire, wasn’t it? Such a disappointment, as something amazing could have been made from the book. Don’t let that put you off as the book is much better at creating a wonderful atmosphere and very three dimensional characters you will really care about.

      Thank you so much Penny! You are so lovely. I hope I will be able to bring that passion to my pupils and do all your kind words justice!

      Yes it is – the secondary education system is not split like in the US, so we have quite the range of ages to teach, which keeps life interesting!

  3. I read Birdsong a long time ago – and was left fairly unmoved by it – reading your review I find that incredibe. It even put me off reading anything set during WW1 for a long time, however that was cured by reading Pat Barker’s regeneration trilogy. I suspect I was just in the wrong place for Birdsong when I read it – and you have convinced me that one day I must give it another go.

    1. Oh no!! I’m quite surprised by that! I hope you will give it another go. I can see that it wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I loved it so much and I think maybe on another reading some of its magic might just surface for you. I hope so!

      1. Dear Booksnob,

        Have you had to pay The Imperial War Museum in order to use the image on top of the Birdsong blog?
        I’d be grateful if you could let me know. Bye the way, I love Birdsong too.

  4. This sounds like a must-read. I’m drawn to literature set around WWI and anything that makes one ‘turn the pages’ is a given on my TBR wish list. Thanks for introducing me to Birdsong.

  5. I’ll be honest – I loathed Birdsong. It’s a book about war for people who don’t read books about war. I thought it had a few very good passages, but was in general poorly plotted, indifferently written, and added absolutely nothing to the genre. In particular I thought the initial set up with Isabelle and Rene clumsy and laughably cliched – honest lusty young stud rescues troubled beautiful woman from evil old capitalist oppressor.

    If you want to read a good, brilliantly written, genuinely moving book about the Great War I would urge you to look at The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederick Manning – against which Birdsong has all the weight and authenticity of Chic Lit (although without the fun).

    And if you really want to read about war, I would recommend Stalingrad by Anthony Beevor, an historical account that does more to capture the nature and horror of war than most books.

    1. I’m interested by your thoughts, Jon, and sorry you didn’t enjoy Birdsong! I have actually read a lot of books about the war, mainly memoirs from people who were there, and I do think that Faulks has done a good job of generally conjuring up the right atmosphere and not shirking on the more unpleasant details of a soldier’s life. Of course he has to make it palatable and pacy, fitting in a plot and character development, so it’s not going to be 100% true to life, but he doesn’t claim that it is. Overall, I think it’s a very good book – if you’re not looking for too much from it. It’s not a war memoir, it’s not a historical text and it’s not attempting to offer a unique insight into WWI – expecting it to be so will always result in disappointment. I thought the plot was interesting and in general it was an engaging and emotive novel – I have read contemporary memoirs and poetry, as well as academic texts on the war, and appreciated them all for what they are – and I don’t think modern literature, which is written for a different purpose, could truly rival them for authenticity – but I think Birdsong adds to the genre by creating relatable, modern feeling characters within an as authentic as possible recreated wartime context that makes the war feel understandable and immediate for people who have probably never read any of the contemporary accounts and might be intrigued to read them off the back of reading Birdsong. That’s how I see it, anyway. Comparing Birdsong with contemporary memoirs is a bit unfair on Faulks really as he could never measure up to those! Thank you for the recommendation of the Manning – I will look out for it.

  6. I did not like Birdsong at all and agree with Jon that it is cliched, BUT saying that, what lucky students you will have as your passion for the book lights up your blog. You are going to be the best teacher anyone can wish for.

    1. Oh no, Enid! I can’t believe you said that!😦 It does have its cheesy moments but I could never think it cliched. Thank you so much Enid, what lovely things to say!🙂

      1. I’m reading it now, have almost finished it. I find the characters flat and empty and the book as a whole contrived, pretentious and full of cliches. I was underwhelmed by The Girl at the Lion d’Or as well, a totally pointless story consisting only of unfinished plot lines. I’m afraid I don’t think Faulks is a very good writer.

  7. Hi Rachel, maybe I should give this another go. I didn’t love it when I first read it, but I expected a lot! My husband had told me he really enjoyed it, but when we watched the adaptation on tv he admitted he didn’t really recall it at all. I am with you on modern fiction and I almost feel a little sad to hear it is on their school curriculum, given how many wonderful older books there are, written in a more distinguished language to our present day English. Out of interest what else is on their list of TBRs? They are indeed very lucky to be entering your classes. Everyone tells me the first few years of teaching are a hard slog but worth it!

    1. I hope you will give it another go, Jane – I so enjoyed it and I think because I went in with a completely open mind, I probably enjoyed it that much more as I had no real expectations. I know, it’s a shame that an original war memoir isn’t on the curriculum – something like Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, or Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That – but I suppose they have to ensure that books will appeal to as many young people as possible, and will have a writing style that is ‘accessible’ – unfortunately that rules out a lot of classics that are probably a little too advanced for the level of study. We are also going to be studying The Great Gatsby, Enduring Love, Shakespeare plays, Lord of the Flies (not looking forward to that!), poetry…and more stuff I can’t remember at the moment. There’s quite a range to cover so it should make for some interesting reading. Than you very much – yes I am prepared for a VERY hard slog but I am sure it will be worth it!

      1. Really? I love lord of the flies – its a bit dispiriting in a way to know humans would descend to such wild ways in their circumstances, but its a great story and well written in terms of all its hidden messages and meanings. I think I did it at school some twenty years back. Enduring love is an interesting one. I remember we were asked out of the syllabus which ones we fancied doing and I think nearly all of the ones chosen certainly in sixth form, were older books. We were lucky enough to study Emma, Howards End and Wilfred Owen’s poetry as well as Shakespeare of course!! Oooh I wish I had a job where I could read fiction for homework / prep!!!! Instead my mba is currently economics and operational management…….! Looking forward to hearing how you get on with Gatsby – have you read it before? J

      2. I hated Lord of the Flies at school but that’s because I was forced to read it – I’m going to start re-reading it this week and I am actually pretty excited to see what I make of it this time around. There is a real range of texts available – there are some older ones as well so it’s going to be an interesting year, especially as I am new to so many of the texts. Ooooh MBA – not something I would enjoy I have to say! I did an MA in Business in America and hated every second of it! I have read Gatsby before but was underwhelmed – again I’m excited to see what I make of it this time round as I’m sure I’ll feel very differently!

  8. Terrific review! From my dim and distant school days I seem to recall the best teachers being the ones who were the most passionate about their subjects. Reading your blog I’m sure you’re going to be a dazzling inspiration for many, many pupils.

    The only novel I have read by Sebastian Faulks is Engelby, which I found compelling and brilliantly unsettling so, with that in mind and having read your review above, it looks as though I should head to the bookshop for a copy of Birdsong straight away.

    One of the previous comments mentions Frederick Manning’s novel The Middle Parts of Fortune and I agree that it’s a powerful novel. Also worth digging out for that authentic WWI trenches and misery experience is Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero – brilliant and bleak in equal measure.

    Good luck with the teaching!

    1. Every word Rachel says about ‘Birdsong’ is true, it is a magnificent book. The book is unadaptable for the screen, it cannot be done, the dear old BBC did their best. Its sad that Jon did not like it, I don’t understand his criticisms. Firebrace was my favourite character, I imagined him living in my 19th cent Peabody Trust flat. I was at the recent Guardian lecture given by Sebastian Faulks which was about ‘Birdsong’. Most of the audience, all die hard fans, were women. How the book came to be written and published is an interesting story. The American editor thought it might sell, if Stephen Wraysford became and an American and it was set in a different war, can you believe it!

      1. Yes I think it is quite a tough book to adapt and the BBC made some interesting decisions that I don’t think quite worked, unfortunately. Oh I loved Firebrace, too – I cried and cried when the sad thing I won’t mention happened. Oh wow – how wonderful that you got to hear him speak! That’s hilarious about the American editor – yes, why not just re-write the book then?! I’m glad Faulks ignored that silly advice!

    2. Oh Greg, that’s a lovely thing to say, thank you!

      I look forward to reading more Faulks, so I will remember Engelby – you’ve sold me! I hope you’ll get a copy of Birdsong and give it a read – it really is brilliant!

      Thanks for those recommendations – I shall file them away!

      Thank you very much!🙂

  9. Delighted to read your review of “Birdsong” – one of my favorite reads, along with his other two written during Faulks’ stay in France – “The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Charlotte Gray (all dealing with WWII). Masterpiece Theater has always been a source of British filmmaking at its finest, but Birdsong was a sad disappointment. Thank you for your insightful review.

    1. Thanks Frankie – glad to hear it’s a favourite and that you’ve enjoyed his other France based books – I shall have to get hold of them. Yes I quite agree – a disappointment it was. No heart, no soul!

  10. Hmmm. I tried this some years ago R but got so fed up with it I didn’t bother to finish it. Can’t remember exactly why but perhaps it was a certain emotional excess played out for exactly that effect, lacking other balancing attributes. Quite liked the language as I recall, but it wasn’t enough. War stuff rather bored me at A Level, R, which is not the case now but was indicative of my development at that time. There are probably certain topics and themes which turn wee blighters on, and off, and I wonder if war is more associated with the latter than former. Then again your enthusiasm may perhaps bowl them over. Captain, my Captain! etc – damn, that would be a nice moment to have.

    1. Oh no, Bop! Maybe it was too sentimental for you? I love a bit of sentiment but I know others don’t! I hope my kids will be interested in the war stuff – can’t say I was at their age either, but then I had never been introduced to it. Perhaps they are more used to it now, with all the apocalyptic young adult fiction that’s out there at the moment. Ha! At some point in my career I will stand on a desk. That is guaranteed!

      1. Excellent, re. desk. Oh yeah, and watch out for hormonal 18 year olds misunderstanding your enthusiasm and getting crushes on you. LOL, as they say.

        – Bop

  11. Wonderful review as always Rachel – I love the film of Charlotte Gray even though it has differences from the book – must admit I especially like the fashion which shows it probably isn’t very true to the era!

      1. Charlotte Gray (film)? NOW you’re talking. “My name…..is Charlotte”. Best line!

  12. Thank you, I shall read it. I remember finding Charlotte Grey extremely absorbing, although not quite as absorbing as how ABSURDLY HOT Billy Crudup is in the film version of it. :p I meant to read more Faulks anyway but somehow never have yet. I shall get it from the library and put it upon my Nook.

    1. Oh Jenny you will love it! Did you see the TV version? If you haven’t, don’t – Eddie Redmayne is not attractive enough to make it worth it!😉

      And you are adorable! I am coming next April, I promise. I already have my flight money saved!🙂

  13. Well if it helps, your review has definitely inspired me to read it. I am sure your class will respond similarly

  14. I read Birdsong about ten years ago and thought it was a compelling read. A real page turner. I’d previously read a lot of the war poets, had walked the battelfields etc, so I knew quite a bit about the subject, and still really enjoyed it. Although I would agree there are perhaps better books around I think this one is an excellent starting point, especially for younger people – both my boys read it in their late teens, and I think it’s a great choice for an A level text. I’m sure your students will be inspired by it. This was the first Sebastian Faulkes book I read, but sadly, I haven’t enjoyed any of his others as much, to the point where I have now completely given up on him.

    1. Glad you feel the same, Debbie! And I quite agree – there are ‘better’ books if your sole purpose for reading Birdsong is to understand the horror of WWI, but I don’t think Birdsong’s sole purpose IS that, and I agree that it is an excellent starting point and a great book to study for those who are not at university yet and don’t have the level of sophistication in their literary studies to be able to pick apart a more complex novel. That’s a shame about his other books not coming up to scratch for you – I’m interested to read more when I have time and see whether I am as delighted with them as I was with Birdsong!

  15. Oh dear, I’m sorry I only seem to comment on your lovely blog when I completely disagree with you!

    I read Birdsong as soon as it came out and loathed it. I found the beginning so boring I thought I’d never get through and then the war section simply reeked of research. I felt it was a book for people who knew nothing about the war, because I was surprised by the critical response at the time which suggested Faulks was telling us something new.

    I agree with heavenali that among modern writers Pat Barker is queen of WW1 fiction writers. I’d suggest people go back to the books written after the war by those who were in it: Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves; Her Soldiers We, Frederick Manning; Undertones of War, Edmund Blunden and many, many more.

    1. Oh Barbara! This is terrible!!🙂

      It’s interesting how polarised people are on this. I really genuinely loved it, and thought it was so atmospheric and emotive, with a rollocking plot that made me not want to put it down. I can see that others would find it cliched, and I suppose it is, in a way, but that didn’t put me off in the slightest.

      It’s interesting what you say about it being a book for people who know nothing about the war. I actually don’t think a lot of people DO know about the war – really, I don’t – it’s not taught in most schools any more – it’s all trendy stuff about the Cold War these days – and so I think having that quite research heavy detail is important.

      Also, when it was published I think Faulks was doing something new – the war and that period in general only seems to have become an obsession fairly recently, with many modern authors using it as a setting for their novels – in the early 90’s, I don’t think this was as much the case, and war memoirs weren’t particularly widely read at that time either. So in the context of writing in 1993, I think Faulks was quite innovative in creating book about the period that is accessible and relatable.

      I completely agree with you that nothing can replace genuine war memoirs, and if I could teach them over Birdsong then I would – but for a starting point that creates a sense of what the war was like, alongside being a very good story (in my opinion!) that throws up some interesting debates (especially surrounding the issue of authenticity) – I think Birdsong does what it says on the tin. It doesn’t purport to be a 100% accurate recreation of what it was like to be a WW1 soldier – it is merely Faulks’ interpretation. And I liked it very much! I am yet to read Barker’s Regeneration though. I’m really interested to see how differently/similarly she writes about the war.

      Thank you for your giving me your honest opinion, Barbara – having to think about why I liked it and talk about the issues surrounding the plot and research etc is really helping me to consider ways in which this can be discussed in the classroom, which is fantastic!

  16. I really have to read Birdsong. I read Charlotte Gray years ago and loved it!
    I love your blog.
    Chiara (Italian reader)

    1. Yes you do, Chiara! I hope you’ll love it as much as Charlotte Gray (which I must read)!

      Thank you – it’s a pleasure to have you reading along!🙂

  17. Obviously, Birdsomg is not a book that anyone’s forgotten! I also loved it, and also loved Charlotte Gray. Somehow The Girl at the Lion D’Or didn’t touch me; I can’t remember anything about it now.
    I admired Birdsong’s careful construction. Did you notice that he writes about the Golden Mean exactly half-way thorugh the book? Also, I thought he conveyed the feeling of hopelessness brilliantly without somehow making me as a reader feel hopeless.

    1. Yes – it’s certainly made an impression, hasn’t it?! No I didn’t – I will have to go and look at that again! And yes I quite agree – that sense of the pointlessness of it all was very beautifully expressed, and also the way hope is never quite extinguished in the human heart, no matter how bleak the circumstances. Amazing book!

  18. Birdsong is one of those books that I almost always spot at second-hand shops and think ‘one of these days’. The dramatization was all right but most likely only half of the story. I tend to gravitate more towards books from or about the Second World War so Charlotte Gray is on my shelves, waiting. The film is absolutely brilliant (watched it twice) and I know for certain that you would love it, Rachel!
    Have you ever had so much fun preparing for the workplace?

    1. Oh Darlene I know you’d love it – it’s so much better than the adaptation!! I must read Charlotte Gray and then watch the film – it’s another book I always see in charity shops so I’ll pick it up one of these days. I know, it’s brilliant – ‘look, I can’t come out today, I have to do all this work for school’ – then sitting down on the sofa and getting out a book!🙂

  19. I have never much fancied Birdsong after watching the BBC adaptation but your review has changed my mind a little and I may well pick it up one of these days! It’s great that you get to share something you have loved so much with your class. I am intrigued as to what the “dire write-by-numbers young adult books” are, though – I wouldn’t have thought that sort of thing gets taught in schools?

    1. Oh Marie, it’s STREETS ahead of the BBC adaptation – so much richer and with more character development. The characters will make so much more sense to you once you’ve read the book. I know, it’s nice to have a book I will actually enjoy to teach! Oh yes, you’ll be surprised – a lot of the latest young adult reads on the curriculum are not very literary at all! Though I think they only seem that way to me – if I was 11 or 12, I’d probably think they were brilliant, which is the point really – I’m not reading them for my pleasure!

  20. Birdsong was my introduction to war literature, and opened my eyes, so I count it among my most favorite and influential books. I’m not sure how I’d feel if I came to it with some level of insight already, but for me it marked a major turning point in my views on war.

    1. I’m so glad to hear that, Laura – I think for people who haven’t had much exposure to the history or literature of WW1, Birdsong is a very valuable starting place. And a great read too!

  21. About to start reading this book for a Contemporary British Fiction graduate course. Your post really got me excited about it, so thank you!

  22. Back in 2002, I bought Birdsong, Charlotte Gray, and the Girl at the Lion d’Or. Awed by Birdsong – brilliant writing for lack of a better word – and my dad was a veteran of that awful trench war. I enjoyed the other two also. Loved the Charlotte Gray movie, but the Birdsong PBS adaptation of the novel was quite a disappointment. I am sure this novel will be appreciated by all who read it.

  23. I find it interesting that it appears to have completely polarised opinion, it seems that everyone either loved it or loathed it. Having been forced to complete A2 coursework on Birdsong I can categorically say that it ruined English Literature as a subject at school for me personally. I had such passion for reading and literature but being forced to read this a few years ago genuinely ruined reading for me for an extremely long time. I don’t think it helped that the year before I had been enamoured with The Great Gatsby that the modern literature, like Birdsong and The Kite Runner that I was asked to read fell flat. I also found character development to be lacking and I agree with a previous user that I found it be contrived and lacking in many ways. I didn’t personally feel any connection to the characters and I think for a 16-17 year old that was essential for me to enjoy the novel. However your review which I have just stumbled across and made me consider that perhaps I should re-read it now, and then I remember the absolute hatred that I felt for Faulks at the time and shudder at the thought of going through it all again.

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