British troops near Ypres
The book that propelled Sebastian Faulks to top-rank novelist is a stunning, evocative read. As the cover blurb says it's not perfect, but it's not far-off. Set in France before and during the Great War following the life of a young officer, Stephen Wraysford, the strength of this book is its power to convey the sights and sounds of the "War to end all wars".

Not quite perfect? Well, I'm not convinced by the romance which is at the heart of the opening section of the novel, and which runs to a certain extent throughout. The relationship is highly charged and erotic, and generally very well written - but Isabelle's motivation is unclear, and the end of the first section of the book feels forced and unnatural. In fact Isabelle's actions throughout seem oddly without reason, and she comes across especially in the latter part of the book more as a cardboard figure to be moved at the novelist's convenience than a flesh-and-blood character.

However once the action moves to First World War France and Flanders the novel moves into a different gear, and becomes a captivating read. Birdsong, along with Pat Barker's The Ghost Road and Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front must rank as the great novels of the '14-'18 war. Set in the claustrophobic world of the trenches and the deep mines, a separate subterranean world under the trenches, Faulks brings to life the horror, and the sights, sounds and even smells of that world. Where Isabelle's character was paper-thin, the lives and experiences of the men at the Front are well rounded and intensely moving.

As a counterpoint to the '14-'18 story the novel also follows the experience of a descendant of Stephen's, discovering the horrors of the First World War for herself, and fulfilling a long-forgotten promise to a dead soldier. I thought this worked really well, as Elizabeth re-discovered her father's world I found myself thinking about my own grandfather, and my father's cousin. My father's cousin was killed towards the end of the First World War (just a few days before the Armistice), while my grandfather, who was a miner, was called up late in the War. He arrived at Dover ready to be shipped to France just as the Armistice was signed, but, if he had gone to France, he would probably have been serving in the same deep mines as Jack Firebrace and his comrades in Birdsong were.

This is a book that makes you think deeply. It has some similarities to my last read Shadow of the Silk Road, as it demonstrates how history long past may cast its shadow over the present and linger on into the future. This is a powerful read, and highly recommended.


Aarti said…
I've had this book for a very long time, but have not read it yet. I'm glad you enjoyed it- I didn't realize it was one of those parallel narrative stories, with two time periods. Thanks for the review!

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