Review: ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks

I don’t think there’s a long enough period of time in which I could sit down and do justice to this book. It’s complicated yet extraordinary layers of narration, characters and events are, on the whole, breathtaking and at points heartbreaking, and demonstrate the continuity of the human race against all terrors and evils that face it.

Let’s get this out of the way first: I have a lot of respect for this book, but there are two things that I struggle with slightly. First of these is dialogue: I find Faulks’ style quite clunky and lacking the humanity of real speech – it’s incredibly formal even when taking into account the era in which it’s set, which loses some of that human vitality that makes this a touching novel. Some elements of dialogue border on telling readers what is being felt, rather than showing us, by which I mean instead of inferring the subtle nuances of each character as we do in the descriptive elements, we’re subject to statements which remove this element of delicacy and complication. The one section I would consider exempt from this is Stephen and Jack’s final moments together: Stephen’s walls finally crumble enough for this type of dialogue to be fitting to his state of mind, and Jack is delirious enough to fit this also.

The other element I’m not a massive fan of is the 1978 sections. I understand why they’re there: the continuity of life, the fulfilment of potential…But, in short, I just didn’t get on with them. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine writing about 1918 for longer than Faulks did; it perhaps would have removed the horror if these things started to become commonplace. Difficult and not something I propose any solutions to, these sections were just elements I didn’t have patience with when I was desperate to know what happened in the war scenes.

However, these are two small elements of a chunky novel. The beauty of Amiens, of Stephen and Isabel’s relationship and the subsequent destruction are all tailored perfectly; Stephen’s development, in particular, is an interesting story to follow. His movement from impulsive to fearful is a fascinating insight into the mental destruction of war, and also the immovability of love, even at the root of all evil.

What I found Faulks to be most talented at were the (at points rather graphic) war descriptions. One that haunts me through its sheer bluntness that captures the essence of the First World War is the death of Douglas early on in the war sections. The idea that a solid structure, such as man, becomes so weak in the face of horror and evil is incredibly moving and difficult to cope with. On so many levels I think we struggle to comprehend the extent of the atrocities in WW1 – it’s a world far removed from our own; wars may still be fought, but they certainly appear to lack the brutality and forcefulness of the war to end all wars. Not that precision killing and extreme tactics make war a better concept, but they seem to make it less devastating compared to WW1 and WW2. The descriptions of the tunnels are also so intricate you could follow them as you would a map, allowing you to experience the claustrophobia alongside Stephen.

Weir is a character I find incredibly poignant. His visit home is particularly painful; he sets the course for Jack Firebrace’s own death wish – there are barriers we cannot cross without experience. His deterioration, worsened still by his apparent cheer on his final day, are able to show the instability of the entire world – the reliance on ‘magic’, and on substances to dull reality, show a world without structure, without definition and without justification. If it is indeed better to rely ‘on a malign providence’ than none at all, it is difficult to see why through the breakdown of someone as innocent as Weir.

Jack Firebrace seems to vocalise all of these issues, as if acting as a Chorus in his final moments. He demonstrates why the world cannot simply return once war is over; that terror is embedded deep within these men, stopping them from believing and trusting in any world that could inflict such damage. It is a fitting end; the perspective of the ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.

Without rambling on too much (there’s so much to discuss and never enough time to do so!), ‘Birdsong’ is, as its subtitle suggests, a novel of love and war: how love can inspire survival, and how war can negate the things we thought we cherished. Faulks’ novel uniquely explores how war can give birth to love, and that despite its horror can give way to continuity and survival against all odds.

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