Birdsong is the second book to be written in Sebastian Faulks’ French trilogy, although in terms of the series chronology it’s the earliest, spanning 1910-1979. Birdsong works very effectively as a standalone novel and I don’t think it’s necessary to read the rest of the series to be able to enjoy it fully, however if you’re going to read the third book, Charlotte Gray, I would definitely recommend reading The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Birdsong first in order to get the most out of it.
I genuinely think that Birdsong is one of the best books ever written. There will be people who disagree with me and I know that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but I just don’t understand people who don’t like this book. I think it’s such a powerful and highly emotive novel, and even if people don’t like the storyline they must surely understand that it’s so wonderfully done.
Birdsong is essentially a love story, although this aspect of the book at times seems very far removed from the main characters’ daily lives in the trenches. It begins in France in 1910, when Stephen Wraysford goes to stay with the Azaire family to learn about their textile business. He begins a very passionate and extremely erotic love affair with Isabelle Azaire and they run away together, but she eventually leaves Stephen and returns to her husband. The majority of the novel focuses around Stephen’s time as an officer during the First World War, and the relationships he establishes with his men. The narrative at this point is divided between Stephen and Jack Firebrace, a tunneller whose job is to try and blow up the enemy from below ground. There are also sections of the novel which are set in the 1970s, and which focus on the life of Stephen’s granddaughter Elizabeth, who discovers she is pregnant after having an affair with a married man.
I’ve heard Sebastian Faulks talking about the character of Stephen Wraysford and saying how he doesn’t think he’s a particularly pleasant or likeable character, but I disagree. I really felt for Stephen, and I thought that absolutely everything he did was so believable and understandable, even if it wasn’t all particularly ‘nice’. The characterisation was brilliant. I wholeheartedly believed in Stephen, and I had such a clear idea of him as a person that all of his actions seemed logical and fitting with his personality. I didn’t think he was dislikeable because it was clear to me that he was traumatised, and I had nothing but sympathy for him. I thought his detachment and almost apathy towards the deaths of so many of his men in the trenches was completely understandable, and probably served as a highly effective survival and coping mechanism. Despite this, it was clear that he loved his men. The character of Jack Firebrace was perhaps more easily likeable, which is one of the reasons why the novel is so emotional. War doesn’t distinguish between warm and cold people. Everyone’s at risk, and the casualty numbers in real life were so horrific that it would be unrealistic to imagine everyone would survive the novel unscathed. Stephen is obviously psychologically scarred after his experiences, and there’s an extremely moving moment when Elizabeth tries to track down some of the men who had served with Stephen in the 1970s, and discovers that one of the soldiers has spent his life in a psychiatric hospital (or what would then have probably been termed an asylum) ever since he returned home. He was determined to retrieve the body of his dead brother from No Man’s Land, even though the body was decomposing so badly that it disintegrated in his hands.
I wasn’t aware of the role of the miners before reading Birdsong, and it was written in such a vivid and horrifying way. The descriptions of the trenches were bad enough with soldiers being constantly shot at and poor Weir dying when his head poked over the top of the parapet, but if anything I found the description of the tunnels even more terrifying because it was so claustrophobic and there was the constant fear of cave ins leaving men trapped and dying by suffocation. Every aspect of Stephen and Jack’s service was so vivid and captivating, but the absolute horror of it all was overwhelming. I don’t understand how anyone could read the section about the Somme without sobbing. The pace of Faulks’ writing changes entirely in this passage, which makes it even more effective and emotive. It’s because of this, because of the way that Stephen lived and the sights he saw, that his character was so believable to me. It was completely heartbreaking, and it was exactly the same for ‘the enemy’. I felt sympathy for all of the soldiers, regardless of which side they were on, much like Stephen did. It’s very much a novel which suspends judgement. There’s no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ side, and in a way there’s no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ actions. It’s all about endurance and survival.
I was less keen on the more modern section of the story and would rather have spent more time reading about Stephen, Jack and friends, but at the same time it was a good way to fill in the gaps and inform the reader about what had happened to Stephen once the war was over. I’m not quite sure how to feel about the character of Elizabeth, she’s essentially destroying a marriage with her affair, but at the same time that’s what Stephen did. I’m not quite sure what to make of her choice of baby name either, part of me likes that she’s honouring Jack Firebrace’s wishes where Stephen couldn’t, and part of me feels like perhaps that’s a step that didn’t need to be taken in this story. I’m also not really sure what to make of the character of Isabelle throughout. It seems so unfair to have kept Francoise a secret, and it seems so cold and uncaring of her to leave and take up with ‘the enemy’ when Stephen’s still so infatuated with her, but it’s also hard to believe that Stephen could have been the same person after his war experiences and I doubt their relationship would have lasted anyway.
I feel like I’ve made Birdsong sound rather depressing, and it is but it isn’t at the same time. It’s a beautiful story about love and hope at the same time as it dwells on the awfulness of life in the trenches, and I think it’s wonderfully told. It’s incredibly emotional but at the same time quite stark, and the characterisation is excellent. I really do think the storytelling aspect of it is brilliant, and I think it’s a book that everyone should read. I really, genuinely do think it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. There’s also fantastic suspense and the sections set in the tunnels are so atmospheric, my heart was in my mouth throughout. I can definitely see how it earned its place on the BBC’s Best Loved Books. It’s just wonderful. Please read it!
See also My Culture Mission and read reviews of Sebastian Faulks’ The Girl at the Lion d’Or, A Fool’s Alphabet, A Possible Life, and Faulks on Fiction: Great British Characters and the Secret Life of the Novel, or read previous Book Review featuring Iain Banks’ Stonemouth.