Birdsong ~ Sebastian Faulks

This week I read Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong. It’s yet another book I’d never read before and one I probably won’t read again.

Birdsong follows the story of Stephen Wraysford a young English man who lives in France in 1910; he has an affair with a married woman, Isabelle Azaire. The two of them leave her husband’s house upon revealing their affair but when she finds out she’s pregnant Isabelle leaves him. We find Stephen again 6 years later in the first days of the Battle of the Somme, a man who has grown cold and who’s merely participating in this war to see how far men can go in destroying their own humanity. We also follow Elizabeth Benson’s journey into understanding her grandfather, Stephen Wraysford, by translating his diary – which he’s coded – and meeting veterans to reclaim memories of a man she never connected with.

Birdsong is a difficult book: I’m not a fan of war stories. I find we have a duty to remember what these men and women went through to defend their country – in this particular case mine – and their sacrifice deserves being honoured. But it’s part of our history lesson: and WWI is part of our History programmes in primary school, middle-school and high school. I’ve seen enough images, read enough recollections and memoirs or even heard stories from my grandfather to know that this is not something I like to read for pleasure.
I’ve never been to Verdun or to the site of the Battle of the Somme myself and I don’t know if I ever will. But I will never forget that it left more than a million casualties including over 440 000 dead among the belligerents. A massacre for the British who lost more than 50 000 men on the first day (20 000 death approximately).

That’s why this review is late coming. Because it took me till 10pm tonight to actually finish it. And even then, I skipped some of the most horrid parts, and believe me some are. It’s raw and brutal and honest and full of powerful imagery. One can’t fault Faulks for sugar coating the ugliness of war and its impact on soldiers’ psyche. I’m not sure whether he was attempting to explain that PTSD is part of the reason why it’s so difficult to get actual facts about the war, or whether he’s theorizing on the difference between collective and individual memory – something absolutely fascinating to be honest, which I actually studied during my Master’s degree – but it’s definitely impactful.

Elizabeth’s research for her grandfather’s story is also really interesting in the sense that the younger generation is looking for answers. Will we be repeating the mistakes of the past? Can we avoid that by finding out what the stories behind History were? Or are we doomed to let story repeat itself? Elizabeth has an affair with a married man and has a child from this relationship, much like her grandfather had an affair with her married grandmother…

I’m not entirely sure I got it; it’s a powerful book, well written and its omniscient narrator – even if there’s a focus on a few characters – makes it encompassing and overwhelming sometimes in a way that a narrow point of view. It’s definitely worth a read and it definitely shifts the way of looking at the war, not in its totality but rather in the way it affects each person individually on a physical and psychological levels.
It’s also an engaging book, demanding some thought process: the idea that we’re not remembering properly what happened because those who lived through it/survived it wouldn’t speak of it to spare us the horror is at the core of History repeating itself. It makes the veterans responsible for our forgetting though and while it may be true, it also places the burden on society. What do we do to help these men and women survive the memories? Talk about them?

I’m reserving judgment as to whether this book should be on the list. It’s a good book but it’s not one I’ll re-read. I guess beyond the horror of the war, the disconnect between the romance and the violence was a bit much for me to take. And the overlapping storyline at different times was curious. I’m not a fan of flash backs mind you but I wonder if starting from Elizabeth’s story might not have worked better for me in this case. Because I see my dad digging through history to figure out our family history I might have connected more.

Have you read Birdsong?
What did you think of it?

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