Birdsong turns 24 this year so I guess it’s fair to say that I am more than a tad late to the party. Since 1993 Faulks’ novel has not only enjoyed critical acclaim and success, but has also been adapted for radio, the stage and television. Oh, and it also ranked #13 in the year long “Big Read” survey to find Britain’s favourite book. Sounds impressive, right? So with this in mind I was eager to get reading and answer the dreaded question, does it live up to the hype?
In short, yes it does- BUT that is not to say it was, at least in my opinion, without fault. To better explain this, here’s a quick spoiler-free outline of the novel. The year is 1910 and our protagonist, Stephen Wraysford, is visting Amiens, France. There he meets Rene Azaire, a French businessman in the textile industry, and his wife Isabelle and their children. Whilst staying with the Azaires, Stephen realises their marriage is at breaking point and a passionate love affair between himself and Isabelle ensues. This affair will have far reaching consequences for all involved. Fast forward to 1916 and Stephen is now a lieutenant in the British Army, facing the unimaginable horrors of the Somme, Verdun and Messines. He is viewed as cold and distant by his men, refuses to take leave and continues to write to Isabelle in Amiens. The novel then goes on to flit between England and France, the last years of World War One and 1978/9.
Herein lies my one gripe; why oh why does Faulks interrupt the narrative with the discovery of Stephen’s war journals in 1978 by his granddaughter, Elizabeth? It is completely distracting, irrelevant and unnecessary to what is essentially a war novel intertwined with a love story. For me, the episodes concerning Elizabeth don’t serve any real purpose other than a gratuitous tracing of her family history, which could just have easily have been revealed by Stephen or the omniscient narrator. In no way was I invested in Elizabeth’s character or her own storyline, instead I was anxious for Faulks to return to France and Stephen. This is where the book really came to life; the depiction of war was truly harrowing and incredibly realistic. By no means was it an easy read, but an important one, particularly as the horrors of WW1 can sometimes be forgotten in the shadow of the Second World War.
Faulks also captures the complexity of adult relationships. I didn’t always like Stephen or Isabelle for their actions, but perhaps that is the mark of a good character – they involve the reader and provoke a response. For Stephen especially, life isn’t always as straight-forward as he would wish; sometimes people are difficult and make catastrophic mistakes, but he perseveres nonetheless in the face of loss and tragedy.
Birdsong is a book worth reading.