As I mentioned in my last birdsong post, after watching the BBC adaptation I was going to pick the book up again and reread it. And reread I did. I certainly was not disappointed. As I mentioned previously, I picked this book up in the visitors centre at Thiepval (particularly appropriate considering as how Thiepval is mentioned many a time in the story!) – I fell in love with Thiepval, it was a very moving place and so this book holds a special place in my heart. Of course it has its flaws but then what book doesn’t have flaws? In my eyes however, this book is as close to the perfect historical fiction as you can get.
Sebastian Faulks tells us the story of Stephen Wraysford, a young man who finds himself in Amiens; sent there by his employer to learn more about the fabric business. He stays with the Azaire family, and whilst there he starts to notice Madame Azaire (also known as Isabelle) – of course he falls in love with her and they begin an affair which eventually comes to a head and they leave the house together. The love story makes up the first portion of the book and if I’m honest it really wasn’t my favourite part of the story although it does go some way to explain why Stephen is the way he is in later chapters. And by the time the second part of the story kicks in, when Stephen is in the trenches, so much has happened with Isabelle that he doesn’t find out until much much later.
The second part of the story, where Stephen is in the trenches was my favourite part of the whole book and I’m glad it made up most of the story. And if I’m honest this part had me blubbing more than any other part. Here we see Stephen as he attempts to gain the love and respect of the me he commands, the strange friendship he builds with Captain Weir and his strange ability to stay alive despite the odds. Weir, in my opinion, has to be one of the best and most lovable characters in the story. He is a shy man, with a dependence on alcohol and a man who comes to rely on Stephen and his strange ways – he even admits to Stephen that he has never slept with a woman, leading onto a rather distressing incident in a brothel! Not only does he have this friendship with Weir, but he also develops a very close friendship with many of the tunnelers on the front line. One character in particular always sticks in my mind, Jack Firebrace – a man, not young, who came from digging the London Underground to digging tunnels in France to blow up the Germans, whose son is very unwell. Firebrace is immediately lovable, and I won’t spoil what happens but let’s just say that by the end of the novel I was sobbing so much I could barely breathe.
Of course, in a novel about the First World War, characters that you know and love will ultimately end up dead. And that is so well done in this novel, Faulks describes the battles as if he were an eye witness and his description of the battle of the Somme had my heart in my mouth for the entire chapter. I loved how Faulks used very short sentences to convey the scene, the horror, the desperation. I could honestly imagine I was there as Stephen watched his comrades fall as the advanced at walking pace into the enemy machine gun fire. The way Faulks created this scene, and indeed the whole book, was just utterly breathtaking.
The final part of the book deals with a young woman named Elizabeth, who is in fact Stephen’s granddaughter. She spends a few chapters looking at the notebooks Stephen kept whilst he was at war trying to link to her past, visiting places like Thiepval. If I’m honest this could have been left out of the book, I really didn’t like the character of Elizabeth (not sure why, don’t judge me) and the fact that she was involved in an affair with a married man who kept everything secret, and then had a child with said married man. It was a little cliched and I breathed a sigh of relief when I got to the end of the section and read about Stephen’s escape from being trapped in the tunnels after a German explosion.
The few chapters detailing Stephen’s escape were mind blowing. To cut a long story short, Stephen and Firebrace end up trapped in the tunnels after the German army set a charge off in a tunnel above theirs. Everyone else dies (surprise), and Firebrace ends up very badly wounded. After finding a stash of explosives left by the New Zealanders and blowing it, Stephen ends up being dug out of the tunnels by the Germans who inform him the war is over. And he walks across No Mans Land completely safe, back to the British trenches but without poor Firebrace.
Reading this review back, I realise a lot of it sounds very very cliched, with the whole love story thing and the girl running off, man goes to war and in the end future person finds out about her past; but in all honesty I recommend this book to anyone whether they have an interest in the war or not. It is very well written and you really do end up connected to the characters. It is a roller coaster ride of emotion, which has you laughing at one moment and in floods of tears the next. And the historical moments dealing with the trenches and the battles are so well researched, despite its flaws I do honestly believe that Birdsong is one of the best examples of historical fiction that anyone can ever read.