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on September 19, 2016
I was swept up in this book from the moment I started it. I didn’t know that much about it but a trusted source recommended it. I jumped in with both feet and got lost in it. It’s sensual and romantic, then heartbreakingly depressing as the story moves from a love affair in a French town to the battlefields of World War I. The writing pulls you along and you struggle with the hero every step of the way.

Stephen Wraysford is the hero but he’s a bit of an anti-hero. He’s young and passionate. He’s weird and quiet. He loses his passion throughout the war but works hard to do his job, and job that would be difficult for most people to fathom performing unless they were there themselves. The author writes with such emotion and leads you to believe that he really was there on the battlefields and in the trenches. The dramatic tension is amped up by anyone who knows World War I history. The reader who knows which battles are coming up will be struck with a particular horror, knowing the ending before the characters do.

I had a problem with the end of the book that keeps me from giving it five stars. And I really wanted to give it five stars. Not the ending itself; I’m satisfied with how the plot tied itself up. But the last couple of paragraphs. The point-of-view changed to a character that I don’t feel deserved it.

For me, this was a summer read for lazy afternoons in the hot sun, but it’s definitely worth reading anytime. Love, war, and history, it will appeal to many.
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on April 20, 2017
Really Good but not a Page Turner

I liked "Birdsong" very much, however, it was a book that I kept putting down and picking-up later to continue reading. It wasn't so captivating that I couldn't wait to see what happened next. Although it was highly recommended to me by a friend, it didn't pull me in as I thought it might. At this point, I'm glad I read it to get a deeper sense of how devastating WWI was for all parties involved. That was priceless information for which I am grateful considering the impact it had on our world and so many individual lives and families.
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on July 17, 2015
This beautifully conceived fiction is grounded in fact: it is the deep, explicit telling of the multitude of horrors of the battlefields (specifically, the Battle of the Somme) of the First World War, starting in 1916. The opening hundred pages, showing life as it was lived pre-war in 1910 (in France, by an Englishman), is no preparation for the start of the war, which is as it should be. There is no way to be ready for the wide range of death and destruction, of blood and severed limbs, of tunneling and guns, or of the males-only company that is the core of "Birdsong." There is a fine flow of the timing of mind-shaking horrors with some brief relief of pastoral description, short times away from the front, badinage between the men, and the main character's flitting memories of full-colored, blooming love and romance. The tone for the short-ish passages set sixty years after the war is—appropriately—more direct, to the point, in chiseled prose. It is, however, the unalloyed depiction, in detailed, vivid exposition, devastating range of the hideous experiences endured by each soldier that prevails, and makes one ask: how can any of these men who survived actually take up the quotidian life ever again?
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on October 30, 2014
I recommend reading 'Birdsong', but it will not suit some readers, particularly since it has what felt to me stapled on sections which will appeal to diametrically opposite genre fans. It consists of seven parts: 1910 France, 1978 England, 1917 France, 1978 England, 1918 France, 1979 England. It follows Stephen Wraysford and Elizabeth Benson - Wraysford in 1910-1918, Benson in 1978.

First, the spice!

It opens with a hot and heavy soft porn section, which might cause some sensitive Romance readers to be offended because the author dares to reveal the idea physical sex between adults involves genitals (graphically described); and some literary readers (like me) to feel the dialogue is terrible stuff, being unrealistic, exaggerated for dramatic effect, and too quickly intimate and candidly revealing for a developing love affair in an era of drawing room manners. It was a bit like, "Hi, I'm Isabelle Azaire. My husband is a boring lover and he is an old man of 40 that looks 50 with an aging body, but he is turning mean because he has decided our sex life is my fault and I'm bored with my life because I'm only 27 and although I love his children from a previous marriage it's not enough. Want a cup of tea?" "Hello, I'm Stephen Wraysford and I'm an 20-year-old impoverished ex-con with no education, skills, family or money. Want to run away with me? I know you are the one from the first second of meeting you. I'll love you forever." "How thrilling! You are the hottest thing in bed I've ever had! Let's go!" Although the writing about how Stephen and Isabelle relate to each other is pure soap opera stupid, the rest of '1910' is beautifully written. The Azaire family and their best friends are vividly drawn. Wraysford's innocence and passion are established, as well as the fact he is an honorable, normal youth whose indiscretions are based on his poverty and parentless upbringing.

I found the first third of the novel tedious, a two-star grade at best. But most of the rest of of the book is five star, no reservations at all.

Stephen was certainly in lust with Isabelle, he may even have been in love, fantasy driven as it was. (Men are much more basic when young - want eat now, want sleep now, want fast car now, want sex now... - ; ) If you satisfy their basic needs they will fall in actual love. For awhile.) It's a fortunate thing because this incident in his life sustains him through what may arguably be the worst modern war of the Western world, even understanding that every war is full of unspeakable horrors.

Still with me? Sorry if that seemed harsh. I'm old, you know. Some of us turn sour after a lifetime of disappointments in human nature.

War can add depth to a participant's understanding, or it can freeze everything in amber, like stopping time, so a war veteran might be a permanent 18-year old emotionally even when they are 50 years old. It can wipe out almost all emotion within a person, leaving behind only depression, misplaced rage and bad memories which overlay their lives forever. It can cause a permanent emotional numbing, a complete inability to enjoy or anticipate good things in the future. As psychology is well understood by the average Western citizen today, I know I don't need to really describe these responses to you. However, the why war survivors have these problems we usually tiptoe around, not wanting to explore whatever horrors caused a person's PTSD. This is not a lack of empathy or curiosity, this is self-preservation. Once war is fully experienced, whether in actual fact or only vicariously, it reduces the level of joy one can feel. Never again will the lightness of being that most children are born with will still be felt.

If you wish to experience as vivid and realistic of a war as if you were there, in the trenches of WWI in this case, Sebastian Faulks could not make it happen any more real than he did in this novel unless he hooked up a virtual reality chip directly into your brain. Parts 1917/1918 are the most fantastic war writing I've ever read. It's incredibly awful and incredibly beautiful. The suffering, starving, lice and filth, the miles of walking and lack of sleep on poor quality food and very little water, the heat, the noise, the shocking deaths of friends inches from you, the blood and body parts - and it has no end, but continues for years and years. The pay is lousy and any second you could die, yet despite the continuous fear and stress, your brain must somehow be alert enough to do your job, when mostly all you want is to become dead without the pain. However, there is glory in knowing your fellow soldiers, their willing sacrifices for you, and the inexplicable bravery which is pulled out of you, as well as the amazing strengths you find you have in wanting to live when you had wanted to die a second before.

It's all alive and real in the reading, as if you were Wraysford. He was not a fictional character while I read this. I was in his head, feeling his life.

Whew! I will not be forgetting this book.

Nineteen seventy-eight introduces us to a relative of the people we've been reading about in 1910, Elizabeth Benson. She is a modern woman of London and she has a mild desire for marriage because she would like to have kids. But she wavers at losing her independence. She has a great job and can support herself, which is possible because society no longer forces women to stay home. Her boyfriend is married with children and works in another country.

A series of circumstances leads her to research WWI and her grandfather's service in France. She is almost completely unaware of the nature of war, but especially WWI is unknown to her. Her research becomes more determined as she realizes what an amazing thing it is what ordinary young men and boys went through, and never talked about if they survived, and what the war cost them in shortened lives and broken relationships, mostly unrecognized, unrewarded and forgotten.

If this book consisted of the 1917-1918 sections alone, I would be jumping up and down, thrusting this novel into the hands of all my friends pleading with them to read this next, please. But it had the pasted up and unconvincing section of Isabelle's and Stephen's affair, which frankly, had me almost abandoning the book. Benson's sections were better, but I felt unnecessary to the story. In my opinion, I think this was a Great War Novel originally, but somewhere somehow a decision was made to increase its commercial value by adding a doomed love affair. Since the added-in affair and the genealogical search by a granddaughter seemed more of a naked play for literary readers who have been reading similar award-winning books with these same elements, instead of a heart-wrenching war story, I felt as if I were reading a clone, of lesser dimensions, of previous literary books built up with the same issues.

The title Birdsong is very cool and very likely full of meaning. Actual birdsong is a delight to hear, sometimes achingly so. It can induce the same feelings that hearing a distant train can. I had fun when I finished the novel, while drying my tears after the last page, trying to figure out why this awful romance gorgeous war novel had been given this title. Feel free to offer suggestions.

"Wilt thou be gone? It is not yet near day.
It was the nightingale, and not the lark
That pierced the fearful hollow of thine ear."
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My first foray into the writing of Sebastian Faulks took me to a faraway land in France. It begins with a bit of a love story when Stephen goes from London to France to learn the textile trade. Meeting a woman named Isabelle, he falls in love. Fast forward a bit to 1917 and WWI and we find our young hero, Stephen, fighting the Germans in the trenches in France. Firsthand I learned the ins and outs of trench warfare where young men were sent to march forward and forward bravely while bullets and mortar threatened their tender lives.

Gritty and realistic, if you've ever wondered what life in WWI was like, this book transports you to the front line. Have you ever wondered why a certain friend or relative refuses to talk about a war in which they participated, this book will tell you why. Crazy thing war, horrible, misleading, deadly and hellish but so many return again and again to the front lines and the action, and once more this book will tell you why. After the horrors of war and the things the young men see and do, society, love and life is never the same. It's so very hard to connect with anyone else when you've been through it all.

Even though this book has a dash of love and a lot of war, it's a tender story of a man who was orphaned when young and led a wandering life, he had a strong will to survive and to perhaps, feel love again.

While the mortars are going off, Stephen's granddaughter in the future is searching for him as his story unfolds. His notebooks are all she has to go on and they are in secret code which has to be cracked if she is to know anything about this mysterious man whom she never met. And as his life unfolds, we witness the accounts of tunneling, and trench warfare of the first world war.

Highly recommend - for those who wish to learn about what has gone before and how high the cost of our freedom was.
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on March 3, 2013
There was something pitch perfect for me in 90% of this book. A reviewer on the cover uses the word "dispassionate" in his description. Nothing I'd read about WWI before Birdsong brought me into it like Faulks, and it is precisely this dispassion that does it. It is also this dispassion that did make me a tad uncomfortable while reading intimate scenes. There is no fear and no hysteria. A powerful approach in the right hands.

An odd fellow from an emotionally deprived childhood falls in love with a married woman. Things happen. He winds up in the war, and so on. It's the writing that captivated me. I don't know why, but I kept recalling Sartre's The Age of Reason (a book I recall loving) while reading Birdsong, though I haven't read Sartre in 30 years. It has nothing to do with the story at all, but the writing - or perhaps a character, I'm left with so little memory of it. Or perhaps certain neurons simply crossed paths fooling me into believing there is some relevance to this recollection. It's so odd that this vague memory kept coming up.

At any rate, this book had me buried in a tunnel barely large enough to squeeze through with the faint sound of mortar shells above ground and the smell of my unwashed fellow soldiers ahead of and behind me. I was there, scratching myself insane to the relentless sound of the war. I understand now. I'm grateful for this understanding. We should never take for granted or forget what these men did.
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on May 12, 2012
This is a very beautifully written and hard-hitting war story, based on the men who engaged in trench and tunneling warfare in France during World War I. I found the love story that complements it weak and less satisfactory.

The first hundred pages of the book introduce us to the lead character of Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman who has an affair with a married French woman prior to the war. The situation is a bit cliché-ridden, with the young man smitten by an attractive older woman who is abused by her husband. The character of Stephen, because he is the central character in the novel, is fully fleshed out, while the woman is pretty much a one-dimensional object of desire. Despite her situation, it was hard to get to really know her or care about her.

But the book comes alive as the story shifts to Stephen's service as a lieutenant on the front lines in 1916. The writing becomes so much more powerful and purposeful. The scenes of battle and descriptions of injuries are gut-wrenching. Faulks creates an unforgettable cast of soldiers and miners who sacrifice themselves repeatedly in mostly futile attempts to out-maneuver the Germans. Memorable scenes include the men writing letters home and preparing on the night before the disastrous battle of the Somme, and a final, extended scene of men desperately trying to survive a tunnel collapse in the last days of the war. The war story, which constitutes the bulk of the book, is compulsively readable, so compelling it really is impossible to put the book down.

Then the book takes a clumsy turn into the 1970s to show how the granddaughter of Wraysford learns about his wartime heroics and love affair. These sections also seemed weak by comparison to the war narrative. It kind of feels like book by committee, with the publisher perhaps advising Faulks to include a more contemporary character to make the story relevant to current readers.

Despite my reservations, the bulk of "Birdsong" is so powerful and memorable as a war story that I still recommend it to other readers.
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VINE VOICEon April 28, 2014
This is one of those books I will never get out of my head. Anyone who thinks war is a noble human endeavor should read this. Faulks' prose is so rich and vivid, you feel like you are there in the muddy, bloody, stinking trenches of the Somme with Stephen. I had to read slowly to 1) savor every word and 2) it was so overwhelming I could only handle a little at a time. I cried more than once reading this.

There are many love stories in this novel. The one I thought most compelling was the love that grew between Stephen and Jack Firebrace. The two men go through life and death and absolute hell together, you can't experience something like that with a person and not be a part of each other.

Holy cow, I don't even know what else to say but READ IT
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Judging by the number of Amazon reviews it has amassed, BIRDSONG is Sebastian Faulks's most popular novel. It is the fourth Faulks novel I have read. I distinctly preferred "Human Traces", and perhaps even "A Week in December", but still I found BIRDSONG quite worthwhile.

Faulks's principal attraction for me is that he, more than most contemporary writers of literary fiction, tells a story without resorting to trendy and confusing narrative devices. Furthermore, he creates some riveting scenes and his characters are appealing, albeit usually a little odd or idiosyncratic.

Though three of the novel's seven parts are set in the late 1970's, and the lengthy first part in 1910, BIRDSONG is a World War I novel. Its central character, Stephen Wraysford, is a lieutenant in the British Army. He survives the mechanical slaughter of the First Day of the Battle of the Somme (July 1, 1916), and then also the Battle of Messines (June 1917). There are graphic scenes of the war of the trenches and the horrors of going over the top and attacking entrenched German machine guns behind barbed wire that, despite the glib assurances of the high command, has not been cut by the preliminary artillery bombardment. Those sorts of scenes, of course, are a staple of World War I fiction; Faulks handles them better than most. More unusual are BIRDSONG's episodes of subterranean war -- the miners and sappers tunneling towards and under the enemy's lines and planting huge explosive devices. The extended scene at the end of the novel where Wraysford and another major character, a miner named Jack Firebrace, are trapped for days in a tunnel that has been collapsed by German explosives is one of the most harrowing scenes I have encountered in my recent reading.

There are plenty of memorable descriptions. Here's one, as night sets at the end of that bloody first day of the Battle of the Somme (when the British incurred 57,000 casualties): "The earth began to move. To their right a man who had lain still since the first attack eased himself upright, then fell again when his damaged leg would not take his weight. Other single men moved, and began to come up like worms from their shellholes, limping, crawling, dragging themselves out. Within minutes the hillside was seething with the movement of the wounded as they attempted to get themselves back to their line. * * * It was like a resurrection in a cemetery twelve miles long."

But, in the end, the birds sing, and life goes on. (If I ever re-read BIRDSONG I will make note of every reference to the singing of birds.) And there are the joys of innocent children and the hope of the birth of babes.

In addition to war, there also is love -- or at least the subtitle of the novel so proclaims. To me, the two (or is it three? or maybe even four?) love affairs of BIRDSONG pale in comparison to the war story.
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In 1993's "Birdsong", author Sebastian Faulks crafts a multi-generational drama around the undoubted horror of trench warfare on the Western Front in the First World War. The novel is beautifully written, even haunting, if overambitious in the arc of its narrative.

In the first part of the story, young Englishman Stephen Wraysford arrives in Amiens, France, in 1910 to work with a local clothing manufacturer named Azaire. He stays at Azaire's home, and shortly begins a passionate affair with Azaire's young and abused wife, Isabelle. Stephen and Isabelle will elope, but when Isabelle learns she is pregnant, she abandons Stephen without explanation.

The story fast-forwards to 1916 and the First World War. Stephen Wrayford is a brand new subaltern, just promoted from the ranks and leading a British infantry platoon on the Western Front. One of his responsibilities is to assist an engineering company digging tunnels under the German lines. The leader of the engineering company, one Captain Weir, will become Stephen's best friend during the horror of the fighting. One of the enlisted engineers, Jack Firebrace, will be with Stephen at several points of mortal peril during the war and the two men will bond over their shared experience. As the war winds on, and Stephen struggles to find reasons to survive, he unexpectedly meets Isabelle's sister Jeanne. From Jeanne, he will learn Isabelle's story, and from her, he will also learn to draw strength.

The third portion of the narrative concerns a woman in her late 30's named Elizabeth, working as an executive at a small clothing design company in 1978 London. Elizabeth is single, childless, and carrying on an extended affair with a British diplomat. Her story overlaps with Stephen's, as we wonder whether he will survive the war while she deals with a surprise pregnancy and a sudden interest in the First World War. At the climax of the novel, Stephen is trapped in a collapsed tunnel beneath the lines while, two generations away, Elizabeth prematurely begins to give birth in a seaside cottage.

Faulks is a wonderful writer. His prose is exceptional, especially the portions of the novel concerning the Western Front, which are graphic in their telling and haunting in their insight. The initial portion of the novel serves to introduce us to Stephen Wrayford as a person, so that the changes driven by the war will be more visible to us. The connections between the first and second parts, as Stephen accidently encounters Jeanne, are important to Stephen's survival but less compelling as a continuation of the love story. The looping of Stephen's and Elizabeth's stories together is frankly awkward and strains to be plausible. The novel might have been better served by a shorter narrative.

"Birdsong" is highly recommended as a well-written, dramatic, and moving story of the First World War. It is somewhat less convincing as a multi-generational love story.
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