Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

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Birdsong

Five words from the blurb: WWI, affair, mud, doomed, love

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time, but I kept postponing the event because I worried that I wouldn’t enjoy it. For some reason I thought it would be a slow romance and so I was surprised to discover that most of this book is set in the trenches of WWI and it contains some of the most vivid battle scenes I’ve ever come across.

The book begins with Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, travelling to France on business. He falls in love with the wife of his host and their secret love affair forces them to make difficult choices about what really matters in their lives. Fast-forward a few years and Stephen finds himself deep in the trenches of WWI. He must put his thoughts of love aside and concentrate on the lives of the soldiers around him.

I found the experience of reading this book very strange as although I had no emotional connection to the characters I still wanted to know what happened to them. In each scene I didn’t care whether or not an individual lived or died, but the tension was mounted perfectly and it frequently had my heart racing.

The descriptions of what life was like for those fighting in the trenches were outstanding and I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.

The men loved jokes, though they had heard each one before. Jack’s manner was persuasive; few of them had seen the old stories so well delivered. Jack himself laughed a little, but he was able to see the effect his performance had on his audience. The noise of their laughter roared like the sea in his ears. He wanted it louder and louder; he wanted them to drown out the war with their laughter. If they could shout loud enough, they might bring the world back to its senses; they might laugh loud enough to raise the dead.

Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy the sections set in the 1970s. Every time the book entered this more modern era I became bored and longed for it to return to the gritty realism of the war. In the end I could see why these bits were added, but I think the book would have been better without them.

The last WWI scene was particularly poignant and is one of the most important pieces of war writing I’ve ever read.

This is a modern classic and I can see why it keeps cropping up on those lists of books everyone should read. It has its faults, but these are far outweighed by the positives.

Highly recommended.

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This book was given to me by the BBC shop in exchange for an honest review.


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One Comment

  1. Jeanne says:

    No emotional connection to the characters is a difficult trick, I think, but yes, this author does it. As I said in my own review today, I wasn’t even sure who the protagonist was going to be until I got a few chapters in.

    Like the tunnels that go nowhere (or into the enemy’s lines), I think the lack of emotional connection is part of the experience of the story.

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