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!