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This highly unpredictable 1993 novel by award-winning Faulks, focuses on the Battle of the Somme, famous chiefly on account of the loss of 58,000 British troops. The scenery is depicted so clearly that the readers will feel as though they are actually there, witnessing the mutilated, grotesque bodies, all as a result of the terrible war.
The story begins in the house of Azaire, in France, 1910. 20-year-old Englishman Stephen Wraysford is staying there, whilst learning more about the textiles industry. He falls in love with Isabelle, Monsieur Azaire’s wife, who is 9 years Stephens junior. Despite the age difference they make love copious times, and soon run away together to an alternate part of the country.
However, Isabelle falls pregnant and feels pressurised and confused, so escapes to the arms of her elder sister, Jeanne. Stephen returned from work and realised she had gone, without even knowing he was soon to be the father of a young child. After a few days the resilient character realised she was never coming back, and he forgot about his first love almost completely.
The next scene takes place during the Battle of the Somme, where Stephen having had good education, was promoted immediately to an officer. He is often referred to as being ‘strange’ by his fellow men, of whom didn’t always look up to the cold-blooded, detached character. Stephen miraculously survives two years of heavy battles, and he becomes possessed by an inexplicably strong will to survive
On leave, he discovers Isabelle’s elder sister Jeanne in the town of Amiens, and gradually builds up a relationship with the woman. She explains that Isabelle had returned to Azaire but recently met a German called Max of whom she fell in love with. She agreed to let Stephen visit her, as she was ill after being injured by a shell.
The book goes forward in time to 1978, where Stephen’s granddaughter Elizabeth is trying to find out more about her brave grandfather. She makes frequent trips to see a man, Brennan, who fought in the war with Stephen. She had many notebooks that once belonged to Stephen, all written in special code. Elizabeth got a friend to study the books and eventually he cracked the code.
Elizabeth thought that Jeanne was her grandmother, but her own mother, Francoise, finally admitted to her that her grandmother was actually Isabelle, the sister of Jeanne. On leaving the war Stephen married Jeanne, and Isabelle and Max both died, leaving the newly wed couple to bring up Francoise.
Stephen is an extremely believable character, who had a disappointing upbringing, leaving him to be quite a ‘loner’. He has no friends or family, and doesn’t receive a letter until the very end of the war, which is from Jeanne.
At the very end of the war him and Jack Firebrace are trapped underground, and so Stephen makes an explosion to attract the attention of his fellow men. Unfortunately, it is the Germans that hear the noise, and after hours of searching, they discover the man. I found this the most exciting and intriguing part of the book, and was relieved when the Germans embraced Stephen and gave him water to cure his dehydration. It was great hearing the utterances, ‘the war is over’.
The title, ‘Birdsong’, doesn’t lead the audience to think it is a war novel, as a birdsong is a sweet, innocent, sound that captures ones heart. However, throughout the novel, Stephen refers to the noises of birds he hears. After making love to Isabelle for the first time, he lies in complete satisfaction listening to the birds. Also, at the end of the war, he returns above ground with some new German friends, to be greeted by the sweet tune of birds.
When writing this I believe that Faulks’ intentions were to inform people of what is was like to be a soldier in the Battle of the Somme, and he successfully did so by producing a very accurate account of what it was like. I felt fully the exhaustion and hysteria that the soldiers must have felt and it made me appreciate to some extent just what they went through.
This entertaining yet informing book is a classic that I will never forget, although perhaps a bit too long. This gripping, moving revelatory book intrigued me and I particularly recommend it to those that found history lessons tedious, but want to know more about the Battle of the Somme.