“They had seen things no human eyes had looked on before, and they had not turned their gaze away. They were in their own view a formidable group of men. No inferno would now melt them, no storm destroy, because they had seen the worst and they had survived.”
Author: Sebastian Faulks Published: 1993 Pages: 407
For a long time I have wanted to read this book and its reputation definitely precedes it. I have to admit, it took me a long time to get through its 500 pages, but only because the sheer gravity of what Faulks was communicating was immensely powerful. The novel is mainly from the perspective of Stephen Wraysford, an Englishman, who spends the years leading up to the first world war in France staying with the Azaire family, where he falls in love with a woman called Isabelle. The first half of the book is set in 1910, while the latter six parts swap between dates of the first world war and sixty years on in 1978-79. During the narration of the war we see Stephen now a lieutenant in the British army.
Faulks depicts an honest and brutal account of what the men in the trenches had to go through, recounting the First Day on the Somme and the Battle of Messines, he doesn’t leave any details to the imagination. This morbid account is a huge contrast to the narration from the 1970s which reflects the indescribable difference between the first world war and a few centuries on; it reinforces the condemnable truth of how easily mankind can forget. Birdsong was written over twenty years ago but Faulks’s message is as relevant today as it was then and as I’m sure it will be in another twenty years.
This intense novel is about love, loss and courage, but most importantly it is about how limitless human compassion and strength can be. Birdsong creates an unfaltering image of the undying and resilient force of mankind and ultimately reflects their unwavering hope and enduring courage throughout the horrors of the trenches. Birdsong proves that while the scars of war may run deep, the everlasting compulsion of love runs deeper. I struggle to find words to describe the phenomenal impact that this book has had on me, but I think Faulks sums it up fairly nicely:
“I do not know what I have done to live in this existence. I do not know what any of us did to tilt the world into this unnatural orbit. We came here only for a few months.
No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand.
When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them.
We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings.
We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us.”