Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I often feel that in the twenty-first century we are in something of a literary wilderness. Whilst I am sure that there are some great books out there that I just haven’t found yet, I cannot help but feel that the burgeoning shelves of Da Vinci Code and Harry Potter wannabe’s will never been in the same league as Dickens, Austen, Shakespeare or Chaucer. Happily, Birdsong is one modern novel which follows the best traditions of British literature.

Stephen Wraysford arrives in Amiens in North France in 1910. After embarking on a clandestine love affair that causes scandal and upheaval, after heartbreak we follow him to the horrors of the western front. By starting the story in pre-war France, and establishing the readers rapport with Stephen Wraysford well before the Great War, Faulks has ensured that this is a book that is about more than just war. It also gives the story longitude, and broader meaning. Unlike a lot of modern novels, I can also imagine sitting in a classroom, analysing this text for an English exam. There are all kinds of interesting metaphors, contrasts, and other tricks that colour a story.

The plot of writing a novel in two eras is a brave choice. Switching from one time period to the other within is even more risky – like a badly-sewn shirt, the seams might show. But Birdsong works. By introducing snippets from Wraysford’s descendants, but without spoiling the story, Faulks reminds us poignantly of how long-gone events have a resonance to us today.

The problem I often find with military historical fiction – and this is from somebody who has tried and failed to write myself, numerous times – is that the balance between the history and the fiction is often out of sync. You either read a historian playing at fiction, or an author playing at history. Faulk’s illuminating preface tells us of how he would sit in the Imperial War Museum’s Library and read accounts from the Great War, and it obviously had a great effect on his writing.

Birdsong is a modern classic, I found it a pleasure to read. The best books take no effort to read, and this is one of them. A TV adaption, or even better a feature-length version, is well overdue.

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10 Comments

Filed under Book of the Week, fiction, World War One

10 responses to “Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

  1. Stewart Spear

    Good review and a great book! On your last point- the movie is due next year (i think) and Ewan McGregor will be in it. We’ll have to see how that one turns out. I have to recommend you read Shantaram too- it doesn’t deal with military history, but its definitely worth a read…

    • James Daly

      Hi Stew, nice to hear from you and thanks for your comment. Its a great book indeed. Looking forward to the film!

  2. I agree, Faulks’ Birdsong is pulled off brilliantly as a work of historical fiction. Particularly striking is Faulks’ imagery: he describes with detached, clinical precision that is very focused on flesh and blood. He is almost dispassionate in both the erotic scenes and horrific battle scenes, which asks us to draw comparisons. I think this is just one of the techniques that Faulks uses to make the 2 different time periods work by drawing interesting parallels and connections.

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