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by Sebastian Faulks

Category: Fiction / Historical
503 pages; ISBN: 0-09-9386791-3

Rating: 7/10  (Ratings explained)
Reviewer: Jenny Grinsted


A novel of the First World War. Opening in 1910, it follows the English Stephen Wraysford through his passionate, illicit and doomed affair with the wife of his host in France in the years before the war. Six years later Stephen is in the trenches; he fights thorough the horrors of the Somme and survives to the Armistice in 1918. Intercut is the story of Stephen’s granddaughter’s discovery of his journals in the late seventies and consequent revaluation of her own life.

Birdsong opens not in the trenches, nor yet in the ‘golden’ Edwardian age, but in the suffocating atmosphere of pre-war provincial French bourgeois society. Stephen Wraysford, investigating the French textile industry, embarks on an unexpected, torrid affair with the wife of his French host. Not a lament for a world shortly to disappear, this is rather the unsettling silence and stiflingly charged atmosphere before a thunderstorm.

Birdsong’s an erotic love story which metamorphoses into a visceral, gripping evocation of the trenches of the First World War - from the lice eggs hatching in the seams of a shirt to the unbearable tension in the days before the Somme. Less effectively, it also jumps forward to London in the late seventies and Stephen’s granddaughter’s rediscovery of his journals; bereft of the high romance of war and doomed love, Faulks is less successful in evoking this more mundane, subtle world.

On the whole, though, Birdsong is technically superb. Nevertheless, ultimately there’s something sloppy, even faintly dishonest about it. Its conceit is that it recovers the forgotten horrors of the First World War: Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter, reads about it ‘with a feeling of despair: the topic seemed to large, too fraught and too remote for her to take on at that moment.’ Yet this is simply not credible. Ask any British person about the First World War, and they’d come up with a set of clear, almost cliched symbols: the trenches, the mud, the shelling. Indeed, it’s such a stylised part of British culture it can even become black comedy - think Blackadder Goes Forth.

Novels about the First World War aren’t exactly rare, either. From Siegfried Sassoon’s searing first hand accounts to Pat Barker’s recent Regeneration trilogy, they’re a recognisable genre. And despite the breathtaking defamiliarisation of its first section, Birdsong, at bottom a conventional tale of love and war, doesn’t have the real originality of, say, Regeneration’s recovery of working class and homosexual experiences of the First World War.

Faulks isn’t nearly as brave, unique or groundbreaking as he seems to think he is - rather, he regurgitates conventional, even trite, situations and sentiments and pretends they’re great truths. Take Stephen’s sense of ‘the unity of the world’s creation’. Apparently profound, this doesn’t actually say anything; it’s a debased Romanticism, a patina of spirituality not courageous enough to be religious conviction.

Can’t we just take the novel as a well-crafted read, though? Does it matter that it isn’t the profound reflection on the human condition it thinks it is? Well, yes it does. Nigel Watts wrote in Time Out ‘The novel ends with the Armistice and the birth of a new generation: only a cynic could dismiss this as facile.’ Yet it seems to me we should resist this kind of closure, just as we should resist reassuring, meaningless claims about the unity of the world’s creation. The First World War wasn’t a mythic conflict but an event produced by social, economic and political conditions; and unless we keep it raw and open and difficult in our minds we can’t stop it happening again.


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