Book - Birdsong
Author - Sebastian Faulk
Review by Charles Flowers
An epic novel of love and war that radically defies conventional expectations, Birdsong moves back and forth between the second decade of our violent century and the near-present to explore how the absurd carnage of World War I devastated a generation throughout western Europe and left a heritage of confusion and loss.
Birdsong may have been a bestseller in England partly because the historical background is quite literally close to home and still poignant in the national psyche, but Sebastian Faulks, an experienced journalist, creates a world that should be memorably accessible to American readers who don't know Flanders Field from flan.
Six years before the war, his young British hero has a brief but scandalous affair with an older Frenchwoman. They will meet again in a lull between bloody battles, each physically wounded and unable to reignite the past, but the narrative core of Birdsong is the young man's struggle to survive the special horrors of trench warfare and find some meaning in the waste of millions of lives. The most effectively suspenseful scenes occur in the tunnels dug toward enemy lines by miners who then set explosive charges. Here, as throughout the novel, the research into the technical reality is evident but not obtrusive, subtly earning our trust. Cave-ins, explosions, attacks of claustrophobia, and sheer exhaustion kill those who aren't dispatched above ground by sniper fire, machine gun bullets, mortar rounds, and gas.
What prevents this grinding ordeal from becoming overwrought or crusted with political message is Faulks's extraordinary gift for significant physical detail combined with his surprising characterizations. His hero, for example, is not likably attractive but a grim, diffident loner who nonetheless becomes a compelling figure, especially in a moving climax that brings him out of a desperate situation into the rescuing arms of his supposed enemies. Minor characters, too, are quite originally portrayed with odd obsessions and unusual personal histories that underscore the infinite diversity of the war's nameless dead. Their heroism is that they slog through and endure, without drums and trumpets, even though their officers are murderously incompetent and the folks back home ungrateful and complacent.
After the war, the hero will discover that his affair produced a daughter, and it will be her daughter who translates his coded diaries in 1979, learning the truth about his famous love story, his experiences of war and the serenity he eventually achieves in marriage thereafter. That the novel ends with a birth might seem too doggedly symbolic a resolution, at first glance, but Faulks's compassionate dramatization and vivid description make the moment powerfully effective. It is one of several unexpected scenes that set this novel well apart from other wartime sagas.
A profoundly humane novel that tells a riveting story spanning four generations, Birdsong addresses grand themes of the human experience while also making us care deeply about several individuals yearning to find healing love and a rationale for survival in the midst of unprecedented destruction