Heart-warming and heart-breaking, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong combines epic romance with harrowing warfare. Written in 1993, Faulks brings the horrors of the First World War to the modern reader in this vivid novel. Birdsong follows the life of Stephen Wraysford as he begins as an apprentice in Amiens, France. Stephen lives with his employer Rene and his beautiful wife Isabelle, in a trance of perfect domesticity. Yet, the abusive relationship between Rene and his young wife quickly reveals itself to Stephen. Stephen and Isabelle soon enter into a passionate affair and eventually run away together.
The seeming tranquillity of the couple’s new life is shattered as Isabelle falls pregnant, and bafflingly decides to leave and conceal the child from Stephen. The novel then moves to 1916, when Stephen is a lieutenant in the First World War who, hardened by experience, creates a striking juxtaposition to the emotive lover of the first section. The novel is then centred around an in depth description of the warfare and challenges Stephen faces, as Faulks’ description haunts the reader. The novel also explores the story of Stephen’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, in 1976 as she begins to explore her grandfather’s past and battle a romantic whirlwind of her own.
Each reader is deeply immersed in the compelling relationship of Stephen and Isabelle from the start. Faulks’ description of both their physical and emotional connection is unrivalled. This detailed novel explores the intricate components of their love, as they swing from passion to tenderness, and battle together through the perversity of the Azaire household. Faulks’ gripping description of their sexual affair in the Red Room meets tender glances and heart-warming protection. Thus, Birdsong undeniably articulates the epitome of romance.
Despite the deeply emotive love of Stephen and Isabelle, Faulks’ war narrative is far from romanticised. Faulks surpasses clichéd description of war as he presents the utterly harrowing experiences of Stephen and unequivocally moves each reader. The plot explores Stephen’s powerful, yet fleeting, friendships and his sense of guilt as he leads his comrades. Birdsong equally explores the psychological trauma of both Stephen and his friend Michael Weir as they exist in both a literal and emotional combat. In one poignant scene towards the end of the war, Stephen and a fellow soldier are trapped in an exploded mine and fall to the realisation that they will most likely die in this hopeless situation. The slow narrative vividly documents each moment of terror, uncertainty and nostalgia as the soldiers believe they finally face their end. In their review, The Guardian articulates how “Birdsong has to imagine mechanised slaughter. In the description of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, death comes so thick that the narrative cannot pause for individuals.” Thus Faulks educates and harrows the reader through each painful experience. Yet, throughout the entire novel, the unbreakable tie between Stephen and Isabelle remains poignant.
The novel concludes from the perspective of Stephen’s granddaughter as she traces her grandfather’s war time journals. Faulks powerfully presents the transgenerational impact of the war through the experience of Elizabeth, creating a sense of homage and memory for the previous characters of the novel. Overall I would argue that whether presenting insatiable desire, tender friendship or terrifying combat, Faulks acts as the emotional puppeteer to each reader.
– Hattie Hansford
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