Friday, 14 August 2015

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

The Content Reader
One of the praises, from the back cover of the book
At a time Sebastian Faulks' name turned up everywhere around me. Obviously, I bought one of his books. It has since been decorating my TBR shelves. My first encounter with this writer just asks for more. Birdsong is a wonderful book on all accounts. It starts out very romantically with Stephen Wraysford coming to France on behalf of his employers in 1910, to see how a factory works, from which they buy material for their clothes. He stays with the owner and his family and it is not long before he falls in love with the wife, Isabelle. This happens rather early on, so I think I don't spoil anything here.
He thought of Isabelle's open, loving face; he thought of the pulse of her, that concealed rhythm of her desire that expressed her strange humanity. He remembered Lisette's flushed, flirtatious look and the way she had taken his hand and placed it on her body. That day of charged emotion seemed as unreal and bizarre as the afternoon that was now taking them across the field to the reserve trenches.
The Content Reader
The other parts of the book are concentrated on the years of the First World War. The horrendous times that the soldiers had, on both sides, but concentrating her on Wraysford and his fellow soldiers. It is so well written and told that you are there with the men. This is yet another good, and I presume, realistic story on the terrors of wars in general, and this war in particular. It is difficult to imagine how anyone survived the trenches and the fights. Faulks also relates and makes us understand how these men would never, ever again be able to live a normal life with their families and loved ones.
As they rounded a corner, he saw two dozen men, naked to the waist, digging a hole thirty yards square at the side of the path. For a moment he was baffled. It seemed to have no agricultural purpose; there was no more planting or ploughing to be done. Then he realized what it was. They were digging a mass grave. He thought of shouting an order to about turn or at least to avert their eyes, but they were almost on it, and some of them had already seen their burial place. The songs died on their lips and the air was reclaimed by the birds. 
Woven into the war parts we meet Elizabeth Benson in 1978, a woman closing in on forty, still single, but having an affair with a married man, who promises to divorce his wife, and marry her. It is a time when she starts reflecting on her life. As we get to know her we also go back through her family history.  Her wish to search for the grandfather she never knew, takes her into contact with some survivors of the war, and changes her way of looking at life.
It was like a resurrection in a cemetery twelve miles long. Bent, agonized shapes loomed in multitudes on the churned earth, limping and dragging back to reclaim their life. It was as though the land were disgorging a generation of crippled sleepers, each one distinct but related to its twisted brothers as they teemed up from the reluctant earth.
Weir was shaking.'It's all right,' said Stephen. 'The guns have stopped.'  
'It's not that,' said Wier. 'It's the noise. Can't you hear it?'
Stephen had noticed nothing but the silence that followed the guns. Now, as he listened, he could hear what Weir had meant: it was a low, continuous moaning. He could not make out any individual pain, but the sound ran down to the river on their left and up over the hill for half a mile or more. As his ear became used to the absence of guns, Stephen could hear it more clearly: it sounded to him as though the earth itself was groaning. 
It is a beautifully written book, even the ugly parts are written with respect and realism, and Sebastian Faulks does not shy away from the nasty bits. Sometimes, it was really hard to read. Mixed with this are the various stories of his relationships, the difficulties of handling them and the beauty of his love for Isabelle. The hardship of the trenches, the way the soldiers lived and the almost inhuman challenges they were put up to, make you reflect on how much a human being actually can take. As Stephen wrote in one of his diaries:
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.
It is in a way a very sad book. There are so many aspects of life, for the soldiers and their families at home. Can love survive in times like these? Is there anything to live for after such an experience? I value this book on the same account as All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (my review here) and The Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry. Both very different books on the same topic. Sebastian Faulks' book makes you consider the questions of life, love and death, and in a beautiful prose, as you can see from the various extracts above. Highly recommended.

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