Wednesday, September 28, 2011


Title: Birdsong
Author:  Sebastian Faulks
List:  #13 on BBC Top 100
Worth reading?  Maybe.

The back of my copy of the book described the novel as intensely romantic.  Even though there was also mention of the main character going to war, I thought I was starting a love story.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

The book does actually start out as an “intensely romantic” love story.  There are almost romance novel worthy (or, really, not being one to read romance novels, what I expect are romance novel worthy) scenes describing the illicit relationship of the main character, Stephen, with his host’s wife.  After the first section of the book, however, all romance departs as we are plunged into the grimy, depressing, and hopeless trenches of the First World War.  The previous romance is barely alluded to; instead, we are swept up in the futile existence of British troops manning the trenches, digging tunnels for mines, and being blown up my enemy shells.

To the author’s credit, these descriptions are so vivid that it is possible to imagine what war meant for the soldiers on the front lines.  And most heartbreakingly, it is possible to imagine the enormous waste of human lives due to command ineptitude at the Battle of the Somme as wave after wave of young men slowly marched across no man’s land to their inevitable demise.  In that respect, the novel is not pretty.  It is not romantic.  It is intensely realistic.  And that, perhaps, is what makes the novel worth reading.  Because, as a character living fifty years later in the 1970s points out, even then we had already forgotten the wretchedness of trench warfare and the unspeakable horror the soldiers endured on a daily basis.

And so, Birdsong is not intensely romantic.  There is romance at the beginning and the end, but it seems disjointed and almost indecent.  Towards the end of the novel, one of the characters welcomes death because after what he has seen, he can’t imagine going back to his wife and resuming a normal life.  In a way, after reading the trench sequences, I thought the same thing:  after all that death and destruction, how can the author describe, and how can I imagine, happiness and romance again?  Maybe the point is that we have to go on living, have to keep hoping, and have to create our own opportunities for happiness.  Whatever the moral is, this book is not a romance.  It is a war story through and through.  And as a war story, for people who want to know what soldiers actually experienced, it may be worth the read.

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