by Sebastian Faulks
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is a superbly written story that begins in France before the start of The First World war and takes the main character through to 1918.
Twenty-year old Stephen Wrayford was sent to Amiens in 1910 to learn more about the textile industry, and lodged at the home of the Azaire family. His impulsive nature led him to embark on a disastrous affair with Madame Azaire.
As a young officer, in the British Army Stephen spends the war in the trenches in France. In three later sequences we meet his Granddaughter as she seeks out her family history.
The descriptions of the atmosphere and of life, and death, in the trenches are vivid, unforgettable and heartbreaking without being sentimentalised. The horrors unfold with dignity and respect in the writing and are all the more memorable for that.
The impossibility of anyone, who had not been there, being able to understand what it was like is brought home when Wrayford’s friend Weir goes home on leave and finds that his family treats him as if he has just ‘been away’ on business or on a trip. His father suggests that everyone is ‘doing their bit’ back home and his mother comments that he has lost weight, ’What are they feeding you on in France?’ she asks. They clearly have no idea and little curiosity about the grim details. Weir’s desperate need to unburden himself, and to feel that they understand, or at least that they care enough to try, is thwarted.
The characters are very clearly drawn and engaging and the individual human tragedies are by no means peripheral to the central theme of the futility of war, and this war in particular.
Although the setting is so grim throughout much of the novel the book is a real page turner and difficult to put down because it involves the reader so deeply with the characters.
A definite ‘must read’ that I would recommend without reservation.