This book was recommended to me by many people, all of whom gushed lovingly about it’s beauty, emotion and depth. I was put off, however, by the fact that they all told me it was a ‘beautiful novel about love and war’. A genre I don’t usually delve into, nothing aroused my interest by this endorsement. Although, I have also always been one to try different things – and I once read a Tom Clancy and quite liked it (not that it’s anything similar…) so I thought I’d give it a go.
Well, everyone was right. For me, this was a journey into a fleshy, physical world of writing that I have not visited much before. I tend towards fantastical, thought-oriented fiction that has a lot to do with the landscapes of the mind even if it isn’t ‘fantasy’. Birdsong, however, is a largely physical novel. It is full of activity, flesh, corporeality and substance – whether it is in the vivid description of love making, bathing or violence and war. At the same time there are some astounding observations of the human condition, and the existence of the soul. The book is hideous and astonishingly beautiful – much like the human condition itself, I suppose.
Stephen Wraysford comes to a small French town from his native England as a young man to learn about the cloth trade. He stays in a big, angled house occupied by the Azaire family: René, Isabelle, and their children: Lisette and Grégoire. He soon realises that he is in love with Azaire’s wife, Isabelle. They have a passionate affair and run away together, but shortly afterwards Isabelle leaves him abruptly, with seemingly no reason. Skip six years into the future and Wraysford is a sergeant in the English army fighting on the French/Belgian border against the Germans. His journey is a devastating one, and yet somehow imbued with hope – probably because of the appearance of another interwoven storyline set in England in 1978-9, of Wraysford’s grand-daughter. Birdsong beautifully and artistically depicts the horror of war, the tragedy of love, the death of hope and it’s rebirth. It shows that two people’s worlds can be vastly, unbridgeably different, even if they live a few miles apart. It takes you from the realm of peacetime romance to the hell of loss, loneliness and futility that is war. People in our generation just can’t grasp what it must have been like, I suppose, even for all the films and books that are available. Reading some of Faulks’ words I was at a loss as to how to relate to the decrepit state of the minds and souls (and bodies) of his soldier characters. I wanted to be physically affected, to feel the emotion of it with my whole being, but I found my mind instinctively rebelling against the feeling. I wouldn’t allow myself, and I think that is because if I tried too hard I probably would’ve realised that I simply could not do it – I could not put myself in their shoes. Sorry to ramble, but it’s funny that what affected me the most was my inability to feel affected. Don’t get me wrong, I felt it with my thoughts, I recoiled and was horror-struck. But I couldn’t picture it, in a real sense. It was just too horrid.
Having said all of that, this is a powerful and brilliant book, with loveable characters and sufficient catharsis to make it less depressing than my rendering of the story! It is poetic and profound, it stirs deeply and illuminates blindingly, and there is no doubt as to why so many recommend it as one of their favourite modern novels.