Sebastian Faulks




Date Reviewed:

May 29, 2007

bought this book about ten years ago, but never read it. I am always buying too many books, all of which I intend to read, but some how I never find time to get to them all. I bought Birdsong because of high acclaim and excellent reviews, but when my copy arrived it ended up on my ever growing stack of books To Be Read Some Day. We were packing up to move recently, and I saw this book on the shelf and thought "Birdsong - I remember buying that - I always meant to read that, it was supposed to be pretty good." Rather than placing Birdsong in the moving box with all the other books, I set it aside and began to read it. Birdsong turned out to be a fast read, despite its 500 page length, because it is such a good story.

This is an engrossing tale about World War 1. The story centers around Stephen Wraysford. When the novel begins, the young Englishman is in France to learn business from a textile factory owner. Stephen is staying at the factory owner's estate, and there he meets Isabelle, the young wife of the abusive factory owner. Stephen and Isabelle begin an affair, but it does not end happily. This section of the novel is relatively brief; it introduces us to the character of Stephen as young man, before he becomes transformed by his experiences as a soldier in the Great War.

The bulk of the novel is a riveting description of Wraysford's service as a British soldier in the trenches during the war. Faulks does a tremendous job at describing the horror of the war. Wraysford serves with a group of miners - these men dig deep tunnels to place bombs beneath the German's trenches. Of course, the Germans are also digging tunnels, and there are battles underground as each group attempts to locate the opposite side and destroy them with explosives.

In 1916, Wraysford takes part in the Battle of the Somme. As everyone knows, this offensive should really be called the Slaughter of the Somme - the British commanders sent tens of thousands of men charging "over the top" against the German fortifications (which were supposed to have been destroyed by a barrage of artillery fire, but clearly they were not.) Waves of British soldiers charged against entrenched machine gun nests. Thousands died, but Wraysford happens to survive.

Warfare changes Wraysford. All his compatriots die. He is grievously wounded, but he doesn't want to leave the front. Wraysford can no longer relate to the civilian world. While on leave, Wraysford wanders through Amiens, the town were he met Isabelle in the prewar era. By accident, he encounters Isabelle's sister. Why did Isabelle break off the affair and leave him? Will Isabelle see him now?

The only reason I did not give this book 5 stars is because it contains some relatively brief chapters set in 1978. Wraysford's granddaughter decides to learn about his fighting career, and talks to some ancient men who served in WW1. I thought these chapters broke up the pace of Wraysford's story. They could be skipped entirely, allowing the reader to get right back into the harrowing horrors of trench warfare. The end of the book finds Wraysford underground again, in a suspenseful and dramatic series of events. I stayed up late to finish reading it - the final chapters are unbearably tense and dramatic. This would make a great movie.

I don't know what the title Birdsong has to do with the narrative, I must have missed the explanation as I raced through the pages. I am glad I rediscovered this book on my shelf, it was a excellent read.