on February 1, 2000
Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, is as good a book as I've ever read. It's imagery is most stunning and so real, I found myself thinking that I had seen the unmade movie some weeks after having finished the book.
It begins with an offbeat love story - no mush - that is captivating even for one who doesn't read romance novels.
When the war scenes begin, you are initially upset that the romance portion has ended. But this is the heart of the book. To give too many details would be a disservice to potential readers. I can say, however, that the graphic descriptions of bunker life have you wondering just how much the human mind and body can endure.
The characters are very real and you certainly feel, while reading, that you are indeed Stephen Wraysford, the central character.
You feel pleasure, joy, horror and revolt as surely as if you were within the pages. At one point, I felt the physical sensation of touch, as Stephen was experiencing a particularly wrenching moment.
When this book is over, you are upset. You want it to last longer. You never want it to end!
This is an important and brilliant novel. Truly a masterpiece. Those to whom I have recommended this book have all started with a skepticism. Surely I was raving. Each has thanked me and echoed my enthusiasm.
To sum up the entire book in 2 words I would proclaim loud and strong "READ THIS!"
on January 6, 2005
This book entered my world through recommendation from an author friend. I opened it with no previous adventures into the realm of WWI and no knowledge of the author. I was immediately intrigued and immediately a fan of Sebastian Faulks! I struggle to review this book without telling you the story line. Therefore, I am not going to tell you an overview of the plot - you need to experience it as it unfolds. I will, instead, tell you the impact of this novel.
Mr. Faulks' writing is so intimate that I was almost embarrased during the love scenes as if I had intruded upon the lovers in their throws of passion. The bitter sweet moments of love found and love lost are feelings that reverberate through time. They were as agonizing to read as if I was experiencing them myself. As the story moves forward and Stephan is at front lines of WWI, I was again amazed at the detail of the story. I can scarce believe that Mr. Faulks was not the actually Stephen Wraysford in a previous life. His vivid depiction of the horrors of war are troubling yet poignont. The friendships among the men, the shared commonality of their situation, the reality of death and the difficulty they had expressing ANY emotion was painful to read. You want to reach out to them and rescue them from the danger of death - and equally so from the agony of life.
Now - flash forward to the 1970s as the generation who experienced the trenches are dying off. A young woman - about my age - with as little knowledge of the war as I previously had - seeks information about her grandfather. Her quest leads her to uncover a family secret, a forgotten generation, a personal desire for true love, and the knowledge that life goes on. 1917, 1978 or 2005 - Sebastian Faulks shows that we all desire love, we all struggle to cope with our personal demons, and we all wonder what we will leave the world to remember us by. This book may be set in the past - but it is truly timeless in its message.
on May 21, 2007
The best war-based fiction I've possibly ever read. Birdsong begins as a love story. The young Englishman lives with a business partner's family in France while on assignment and falls in love with his wife and manages to steal her away. From there the book destroys said main character, Stephen, with the unreliability of love and the horror of war. Faulks' characterization is brilliant and lacks any easy answers from any character involved. Weir, Stephen, Gray, Jeanne, Isabelle, and the rest of the cast are all complex and thoughtful. The brutality that becomes Stephen's life is slow-building. His affair with Isabelle seems dreamlike before her own complications take her away. He survives the war just barely (in fact, this part of the book may have been taken too far as Stephen survives **SPOILER** the battle Somme, being left for dead, shot, another major battle, and being trapped for a week buried underground in a tunnel**END SPOILER**) but the pure unsentimentality of the descriptions of war and the horror that Stephen sees and endures make the story both believable and poignant. As Stephen attempts to survive mental collapse through-out a life of endured brutality, the depression of the novel becomes almost overwhelming and the reader finds his or her small moments of happiness in hope in the same small moments and acts that Stephen does. Only criticism of the book is the character of Elizabeth who ties the book to semi-modern times (still 30 years ago) was a bit irritating at times but she still serves her purpose quite well of giving the author a way to address greater themes of Stephen's life and setting.
Simply a great book and modern classic that will make one want to read more of Faulks and of The Great War itself.
on October 17, 2004
I read this book for the first time at its initial publication... cover to cover in one sitting,and have re-read it twice since then. Each time has been as riveting as the first, although I find that with each re-reading my understanding of the characters grows, and I find something new about each one of them every time. In addition, the trenches scenes still have me gripped, horrified and mesmerised no less than 10 years ago.
The story begins in Amiens, with the main character Steven Wraysford being drawn into a passionate and steamy love affair with the wife of his landlord. This erotic but doomed relationship gives way to the second part of the novel - Steven in the trenches in WW1 - the Great (or Not So Great)War. The account of war is harrowing and yet mesmerising, and I found myself simultaneously horrified by the gritty and stark imagery,and moved to tears by the spare and lucid prose. The third part of the novel describes Steven's grandaughter, Elizabeth, on her quest to find out more about her grandfather's life.
Many reviewers have commented that they found the third part meaningless and irrelevent. I myself cannot agree. I think the very fact that one generation removed, a close family member knew absolutely nothing about the turn of events, is what brought home the truth of the entire novel to me. I had no idea of what went on in WW1 and this book changed my view of history. I knew that people died, but the horror and sheer waste on such a stupendous scale, the unbelievable meaninglessness of it all, and the fact that it did nothing to stop events just 20 years later, still leaves me speechless. I felt every emotion of Elizabeth's as she stood in that field so many years later, and realised how very little the world knew, or remembered.
I felt that the way the three sections of the story are juxtaposed is very effective. Each section builds on the previous. Steven,clearly a man of deep and turbulent emotions, never recovers from his initial affair and its failure almost shocks him into numbness against the horrors of war. And as horrifying as the war was, no matter how many lives were wasted and lost miserably, one still feels that love prevailed.
To me, I was left with two very profound impressions. One is the huge and meaningless loss of life that war provokes, and how it rips through the fabric of our lives, and the second is how equally powerful love can be - that love too can rip through our human existence and mark us forever. We are left victims by both.
This book is not for the faint of heart - despite its almost poteic prose, it is not an easy read.
And yet, it is quite quite unforgettable. It will stay with you for a very long time to come.
on January 10, 1998
I started out absolutely loving this book. It
had such texture, the characterizations were rich,
and I was drawn into the story. The love affair
between Stephen and Isabele was different, this
was not your "classic" hero and heroine.
The characters are interesting -they are not admirable
- just human. Their love affair is engrossing and when it
ends, abruptly, you want to continue reading to see
Then the problems begin. The "love affair" section
is over and the "war" portion begins. The love affair
is never reintroduced - that's it folks. The
character of Isabelle is no longer even a part of
the story - we never understand her motivations. Why
did she leave Stephen - why didn't she tell him
about their child?
The descriptions of the war are terrific. This is
where the author really reached his stride. Especially
harrowing were the descriptions of the tunnels.
But again, there are a number of characters - they
live and they die and you never really get to know
them. I wanted to care about these people - but
there were so many of them and they were really
no more than stick figures.
The worst part of the book is when the author introduces
a character in the 1970's. It is jolting to be in the trenches
of WWI on one page and then out of nowhere - in the 1970s.
I don't know why the author decided to use this plot device
it feels so artificial. He introduces a character you don't
know or ccare about. And, even though there is no
motivation for it, she decides to learn more about
her grandfather and WWI. It just totally destroys
any credibility the novel had to this point. And then to
make her pregnant just to have her name her baby after
a character in the war - ugh, what was he thinking!?!
I think that if the author had structured the book
differently and developed the characters a little
more (what was that about Stephen's fear of birds?)
this would have been a great book. It's descriptions
of the war alone would have made for a great novel.
I think this author needs to have more confidence in
his ability to carry a story without using cliched
plot devices to "help" it along. He also could use a
on February 14, 2000
Books like this seem to come along so rarely that when they do you have to make the most of them. It is a powerful book that tells a love story set within the first world war. It is quite simply an amazing book and one that makes you feel fully the exhaustion and hysteria that the soldiers must have felt and makes you appreciate to some extent just what they went through. The book moved me more than any other I can remember and as soon as I had finished it I started it again. The writing is of such quality that it has a chilling impact on the mind. It is gripping, moving, revelatory and the adjectives could keep on coming. I have never read a book about the first world war that so encapsulates the horrors of trench warfare and that so makes you appreciate what the young soliders went through. It is an event that is slipping out of living memory now but books like this will help the memory of those men live on and will stop attempts to trivialise the war. We should remember the sacrifices that were made in that war by people who did not really know what they were fighting for. This book really does have it all though: plot, superb crafting, beautiful language, strong characters and an important point to make. I urge anyone to read it.
If there is a better anti-war book, I'm not sure any of our book club members would choose to read it, at least not immediately. The emotional commitment required for this sort of novel does not lend itself to a steady diet. Having said that, it is clear from our members' comments that no one regretted reading Birdsong. Despite the tears, the anguish, the revulsion, this book stands out as one of our all time favorites.
Part historical fiction, part erotic love story, and part battle hymn, author Faulk creates something akin to a non-denominational religious work of art, a sort of belated requiem to the lost. Like a canary in one of those dreadful tunnels so incredibly described in the book, Faulk's memorial is a warning to us all: War is senseless; there has got to be a better way; get out now.
Set in two periods: WWI and 1970s Europe, Faulk shows us the worst and best of human emotions. By contrasting the two, his belated memorial to the millions of young men who suffered and died during WWI, becomes all the more poignant. One note of caution: Don't be put off by the early erotic encounters. This is not even close to pulp fiction. There is nothing cheap or frivolous about this book. For me. it was worth every tear. As one of our readers put it, read it and weep. But, read it.
on September 22, 2003
Birdsong goes much deeper than what is obvious at the outset: this is a story about a romance during WWI. Faulks goes much deeper by creating complex characters that we grow to really care about. The story leaped from the trenches of WWI to modern-day England without breaking the story thread. It's a dense novel, loaded with thick feelings and philosophy, and as such is probably not for everyone; it's not an easy or casual read. The landscape of both the book's story and the writing is alternately lushly idyllic or lice-ridden gritty. If you know nothing about the use of WWI tunnels when you begin reading this book, by the end you'll probably consider yourself an expert.
And when you've finished this book, hurry right out and buy Sebastien Japrisot's A Very Long Engagement. Together, both books contribute beautifully to our awareness of the nightmare of what many call The Great War.
on February 25, 2000
Birdsong is a book which will never quite leave me.
It's overiding themes of unrequited love, the pointless slaughter of doomed youth, and the never-ending cycle of generational inheritance give it an awesome profoundity that touches on the very essence of familial humanity.
Necessarily, Stephen Wraysford's heroic struggle for survival in the trenches is contrasted to that of his grand-daughter, Elizabeth, sixty years later during late 1970s. It is Elizabeth's attempt to reconcile the deeply unsatisfactory life she leads with the terrible sacrifice suffered by her grandfather and his comrades that sets Birdsong up as a book that gives glory and heaven to the dead of the First World War, whilst leaving the rest of us behind to ponder why, how, and what for?
After finishing Birdsong I felt enthralled and deeply moved but also empty and quite unworthy of the sacrifice laid down for me eighty years ago.
Birdsong is quite simply a brilliant, brilliant book.
on March 29, 1999
The back cover of "Birdsong" does little justice to the great work contained between its pages. The initial story, of Wraysford in France, is a sweet and passionate tale that grips the reader in its intensity. However, the true masterpiece of the novel has to be those scenes concerning the Great War. Perhaps, for American readers accostomed to Hollywood portrayals of insipid and unlikely accounts of life under fire, this novel will seem to lack spirit and entertainment. However, for those with a deeper appreciation of history, and a wider imagination, this book with enthrall, horrify and upset more than a film ever could. Faulks' prose evokes memories of war poets such as Grenfeld and Sassoon, and his story-telling is superb. The detailed descriptions af the trenches, of the miners tunnelling and of the aftermath of shelling are fascinating, and the battle scenes could provoke nightmares.
Like some other reviewers, I was slightly disappointed by the final section of the book. However, there were one or two points there which were especially poignant, particularly regarding Wraysford's grandaughter's attempts to find her grandfather's comrades. The pathos of the old men who had been soldiers is hard to ignore.
This is certainly the most thought-provoking, moving and incredible book I have read this decade.