Review / Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Pages: 503 / Publishing: Vintage Future Classics / Buy Here

In 1910, Stephen Wraysford visits Amiens in France and falls madly in love with the wife of his business associate. They run away together, but soon Isabelle leaves Stephen without even saying goodbye. He returns to France in the Great War and experiences the most traumatic part of human history at its forefront.

Sebastian Faulks novel Birdsong displays the drama of the Great War on a national and personal scale. We follow Stephen Wraysford and his comrades who have to survive the constant physical danger at the front while slowly decreasing psychologically as well.

This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far can be degraded. I am deeply curious to see how much further it can be taken; I want t know. I believe that it has barely started.

Faulks presents a variey of characters from all groups in society who have been thrown together in the army. Whereas Stephen is responsible for regular soldiers, his friend Weir is the head of the ‚Sewer Rats‘. This largely unknown group was responsible for digging tunnels to the enemies side and blowing them up before the Germans did it vice versa. Reading about exhausted men robbing through extremely small tunnels, constantly listening for enemy activity that could point to their demise, the fear and claustrophobia can actually be felt and one has to wonder how they could make it through years of such days.

As Stephen, the readers asks to which extents of suffering the human body and mind can be driven. On another level of the story, Stephens granddaughter tries to connect to him by decoding his army journals. Through her characer, the author explores the importance of the Great War for later generations. She visits a veteran who was never able to get back into normal life and spent more than 60 years vegetating in a home. He has given his health and almost life for his country and is now forgotten.

When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them.
We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings.
We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us.

Although I am aware why Faulks included it, the modern storyline didn’t give me much. Elizabeth’s affair with a married man repeats the problems her grandfather faced in the Azaire family. Stephen himself is a character with deep flaws; he is selfish and cold. Nonetheless, he becomes a figure to look up to for his soldiers and an important friend to Weir and helps him to cope with war experiences.

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks combines personal life with grand history. Unlike other characters of war novels, Stephen is a very unemotional and cold man. Although this makes him less likeable to some point, he can observe the events on a rational level. Whereas he asks himself, how far men can be driven in war, his granddaughter explores the influences the Great War has on present day life.


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