The words I could possibly produce to tell you why you should read this book, why I will read it again and again… they’re not adequate to describe what I feel. Anything I say will pale in comparison to the intensity and passion of this book.
But I’ll try because, after all, I need to convince you to read it if you haven’t read it yet, don’t I?
Birdsong begins in Amiens, France in 1910 and it finishes in England in 1979, but the bulk of the story is based around World War I. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t read too much about World War I. I’ve heard of trench warfare and of the battles that took months of preparing for and the thousands of men who died in mere minutes. But as I read this book, I felt like I was experiencing those things for myself.
I’m not lying when I tell you that I checked the publication date at least three times and Googled Sebastian Faulks at least that many to see when he was born. Even now that I’ve finished the book, a fact that makes my heart and mind hurt, I can’t grasp the fact that it wasn’t published shortly after the war and it wasn’t written by someone who lived through it. (It was published in 1993 and Faulks was born in 1953, in case you were wondering about the results of my research.)
The battle at Auchonvilliers on the Somme, the battle at Messines Ridge, the battle at Dieppe… these are all things I’d heard of but I feel like I know them now through the raw, real way that Faulks created them. I’m not at all ashamed to admit that I sobbed so hard I couldn’t see the words on the pages more than once reading Birdsong.
One of the things about this book is that none of the characters are completely perfect, completely infallible. They all have their faults. They are all human. The main character, the focus of the story is Stephen Wraysford and he is a boy who falls in love with a woman he can’t have, she breaks his heart in the end, and his soul is crushed under the weight, both literal and figurative, of a seemingly endless war. And yet through it all, he perseveres and finds a way to live again in the end. The other most compelling character is Jack Firebrace who fights below Wraysford and wants nothing more than to go back to a time when he could remember what his son looked like, rather than seeing the mutilated bodies of his friends every time he closed his eyes.
I have to admit that I did get worried about the book at one point; when it suddenly switched to a woman called Elizabeth who was having an affair with a married man in 1978. I wanted to read about Stephen and Isabelle and Jack and Margaret, not Elizabeth. But Faulks proved me wrong. Elizabeth, as it turned out, and her life mirrored her grandfather’s in way that, in the hands of any other author, could have come off as forced and cheesy, for the lack of a better phrase. In Faulks’ hand, though, it is the perfect thread to tie the story together. It ends where it began, as it should.
Life is a cycle; a tragic, hopeful, dramatic, living cycle.