Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong is perfect November reading, especially with everyone pinning poppies to their jumpers and commemorating Armistice Day. Primarily set during the Great War, the narrative follows the story of Stephen Wraysford and those connected to him, principally his granddaughter Elizabeth Benson. It is through Elizabeth, an independent and successful woman, that the reader learns more about Stephen and the part he played in the First World War as she discovers and deciphers the journal entries he wrote in the early 1900s.
Despite the picturesque beginnings to the novel, with the burgeoning romance between a young Stephen and Isabelle Azaire in 1910, Birdsong is oftentimes a harrowing and difficult read, and rightly so. The thought of Stephen and Isabelle being caught in their illicit tryst pales in comparison with the way that Stephen’s life seems to be under the constant threat of danger; his fate unclear to the reader despite the back-and-forth narrative between the turn of the century and the late 1970s.
There is a certain abstract horror that we experience through Elizabeth’s trip through France, when she stumbles across a war monument for the ‘unfound’ soldiers of the fields along the road to French town Albert, part of the Somme. Her dumbfounded response of “Nobody told me,” is both an understatement and yet perfect, especially today, when all we have left of the First World War is memories. No longer do we have living relatives who tell stories of the Great War, and Elizabeth embodies this unfortunate truth.
Our direct access is in Stephen’s personal war story. Gone is Elizabeth’s journey of familial discovery, and, instead, the reader is immersed in a world where death is the norm, and Stephen, seemingly unaffected, stands in the middle of it all. Through the death of his close friend Weir, to suffocating in the underground tunnels alongside Jack Firebrace, Faulks is unrelenting in his treatment of his protagonist, and of the reader. At times, it can be too much, such as when Jack, trapped underground, weeping over his son John, or later, when Stephen confides in Jack about his failed love with Isabelle, and Jack deliriously replies, “I could have loved you.” Death surrounds these men on all sides, and for both them and the reader alike, there is no reprieve, neither for themselves or for those they love. And perhaps that’s the point that Faulks is trying to make.