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.