I didn’t want to read Birdsong; in fact, I’d deliberately avoided it for quite a while. Books that I seem to love the most are ones that no one’s really heard of, no one’s talking about, and no one’s telling me that I must read - and Birdsong is a classic case of the complete opposite. Hype brings with it heightened expectations even before reading the first page, and this always seems to mean that I’m left with a huge sense of anti-climax after reading the last.
Birdsong, though, is different: it is truly breath-taking. From the first line you find yourself captivated, drawn in to authentic descriptions of French rusticity and to characters so perfectly described it’s difficult to believe they’re not real: Stephen, a young English graduate sent out to France on a work placement, the French family he begins the novel by staying with, and, later on, the World War I soldiers, some who briefly feature before brutal deaths, and others who linger a little longer and tragically deteriorate in all senses of the word.
Indeed, the novel’s first real strength must be its characters. Stephen Wraysford is consistent, determined, strong, and yet has a touching vulnerability and a yearning desire to love - which we see so exquisitely in the first hundred pages - that makes him a man that you want to befriend, that you want to travel with, concerned about, through to the end of the novel and beyond. And it is easy to see why Stephen loves Isabelle, the wife of the French businessman with whom he is staying; exuding glamour, French sophistication and yet a deep sadness and longing, the married woman and the younger single man are captivating, and their developing relationship must be one of the most erotic pieces of writing you could hope to read. Hazy, rushed, lustful and desperate, in the details of their intimacy these characters become even more realistic, and it is an uplifting moment when they eventually elope to begin a new, happier life together.
Of course, this is a war novel, and so any happiness that the couple have must be short-lived; discovering she is pregnant, Isabelle suddenly leaves, and so begins the rest of the book, where we journey with Stephen and his unfaltering desire and longing for the only woman he has ever loved, but expects he will never see again.
Their love is stifling, intense and giddy, but makes for an excellent opening; ultimately, it is from having seen Stephen’s vulnerability that it makes it all the more painful to then watch him harden through his suffering year after year of war.
Indeed, six years later we re-join Stephen, now an officer in the British Army, placed in the trenches to face the Germans over the vast expanse of No Man’s Land. It is here that the book, after a brilliant opening, really tightens its grip: this is a story of brutal death, of injustice, of gruesome trench warfare and of, most tragically, the loss of hope.
Faulks wasn’t in the trenches, but his repugnant prose makes you believe he was; as we journey day after day and year after year with Stephen, the trenches become ever more realistic, until you can almost hear the bullets whistling past your ears on the battlefield, and all but smell rotting corpses, witness scattered body parts and total destructions and hear the desperate cries of fallen comrades. This is a tough read, of that there can be no doubt; at first, there is complete shock; next, repulsion, to the point where you almost want to put the book down and retreat from it, hoping you’ll forget every gruelling description you’ve just read. And, finally, as it goes on and on and Stephen and his ever fewer surviving comrades lose more and more of their innocence, hope and humanity, and look upon death as expected rather than feared, this ebbs away to sadness - a deep sadness that touches a spot where few other books really can; a sadness that remains beyond the last page.
And yet, the real effect of this book is felt in moments of reflection after reaching the final page. A few generations ago, many of my relatives fought in this war, and, although we learnt about World War I at school, and about the terrible conditions in the trenches, nothing quite brings it to life like Faulks’ heart-breaking depiction of Stephen and his comrades in the midst of it all. Faulks has made it real, and, with that, allows the reader to end the book with a deeper, more personal respect for all the men who fought and lost their lives.
This, truly, is a book that will change your life; that goes beyond hype and beyond the last page to grab a permanent hold on you.
And, reading this book around the time of Remembrance Sunday last year, while in France visiting a friend, I found myself pausing midway through a particularly unbearable description of a battle to look out at the peaceful countryside around me. I tore myself away from the noise of devastating warfare to the present day, and to the tranquillity and freedom of modern day France. And, looking at the peace around me, painfully reminded by Birdsong of how so many gave their lives to maintain it, I silently, again and again, thanked those who died fighting for us all to be free.