Birdsong

Sebastian Faulks


The home I grew up in was very affected by the First World War. My maternal grandfather, a poor boy from Tottenham, gave a false age and joined up at 15. He became taller (being fed relatively properly for the first time) and in a terrible way, became a man. He found that he was a crack shot, became a sniper and miraculously survived both the battles of Ypres and Somme. He served on the Western Front for the entire war. It was only relatively recently that I appreciated what this actually meant. His tiny, laboriously written diaries, written in a childlike "best" handwriting and hand drawn maps of the trenches are a poignant testimony to his dreadful years. Of course, he never really adjusted to peace - time, a more modern understanding of human psychology has invented grand phrases such as Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome, but for my Grandfather, quite simply life was never the same again.

So for me, Birdsong was a revelation - to actually read that his experiences were so commonplace, it helped me enormously to understand what my Grandfather had been through.

Faulks is best known for his French Trilogy - The Girl at The Lion D'Or, Birdsong and Charlotte Gray. All of which are set in France and between them, cover both World Wars.
Birdsong traces three generations of an English family and examines family history and how past experiences are still resonant today. It begins in 1910 with Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman sent to Picardy, to learn the textile business. He has a passionate affair with his married hostess, which rocks his world. Six years later Stephen is back in Picardy as a soldier on the Western Front. Stephen is now a very different man, no longer youthful and passionate, he is cold, traumatised even, and this is a curious anticipation of what will come. Perhaps his disengagement with events around him protects him, because Stephen is definitely a survivor. He is lucky - like my Grandfather - he survives the carnage. Faulks tells it like it was, the dreadful, reckless, wasteful battles but most affecting and genuinely surprising are accounts of the claustrophobic, fragile and desperate tunnels which snaked beneath No Man's Land. Was it better to die in the open air, blown up or drowning in mud or gas, or be buried alive in a tunnel? This is one of the terrible questions Faulks poses.

Faulks paints a bleak picture, and tells a story that needs to be told, over and over - that war is never "smart" or clean. Stephen's stay in a field hospital is harrowing. He is surrounded my maimed, burned, gassed and mortally wounded young men, some of whom beg to die. More shocking is the knowledge that as soon as they are "patched up" they will be sent back to the Front.
Perhaps I have given you a harsh take on this book, but we all bring our own baggage to the books we read. I should add that Birdsong is also an erotic, passionate and very beautiful book.



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