Friday, December 16, 2011


Englishman Stephen Wraysford is alone in the world. On a business trip to France, he stays with the family of the owner of a local textile mill and quickly becomes infatuated with his lovely and ethereal wife. Stephen and Isabelle begin a heated affair that marks Stephen's life forever, even to the bloody and muddied trenches of World War One.

The book begins in 1910 with the adulterous affair between Stephen and Isabelle, but the majority of the book takes place in the trenches in France during the Great War. And this is NOT a love story, no matter what list this may be included on at Goodreads or what it might say in the blurb on the back cover. This is the story of war. Of the enduring toughness of the human spirit and of one man's quest to survive. 

Birdsong was unlike any other book I've ever read. It was critically acclaimed when first published in 1993 and boasts many rabid fans, but here's the weird thing: the New York Times described it as "dispassionate" in its review. And that wasn't a criticism, just a statement. There really is no better word to describe the tone of Faulks' writing. Faulks wrote a story that included some of the most fundamental elements of life: love and death, war and sex, and did it dispassionately--though not unsympathetically--but with distance. In the reading of it, I felt like I was watching a movie with a gauzy film over the projector to shield me from undiluted brutality and horror.

This was a new experience for me: to be affected by a book devoid of passion, without a depth of feeling. I normally rate a book based on the feeling it evokes in me: the more I laugh, cry, or rage with anger--the more I feel--I view that book a masterpiece and its author a genius. During Stephen's affair with Isabelle, I wanted to see more passion, I wanted to know what they were feeling. What was it about Stephen that made Isabelle forsake her vows? Why did Isabelle captivate Stephen so? The answers to these questions are never answered and an impenetrable fog hovers over their whole relationship. However, when Stephen, in the trenches, faces the very real possibility of death with each new day, I was grateful for the previously established distance that Faulks had created. 

Never have I read a more gritty and moving portrayal of war and what it means to be in one. World War One was really the first war in which men were dispensable, in which fighting tactics changed and a man became a tool rather than a soldier. Faulks explores the psychological effects of war, of the toll it takes on a man to see his friends and brothers fall and yet somehow, against all odds, find himself still standing. The passages describing Stephen's fear, his instinct during battle, and his ravenous lust to live were powerful, beautiful passages. 

Here is Stephen, psychologically preparing himself for a battle at dawn, when he will climb out of the trench, over the earthworks, and charge the enemy line beneath a hail of bullets and shells:

Alone, as he had wanted to be, Stephen began the journey down into himself that would end at dawn. He looked carefully at his body and remembered the things his hands had touched; he looked at the prints of his fingertips and laid the back of his hand against the soft membrane of his lips... He closed his eyes tight and thought of his earliest memories of his mother, of her hands, the sound and scent of her. He wrapped himself in the cloak of his remembered world, hoping he would be safe in it where no shells or bullets could reach him. He swallowed, and felt the familiar feeling of his tongue and throat. It was the same flesh he had had as an innocent boy. Surely they would not let anything happen to it now. His renewed love of the world made the prospect of leaving it unbearable.

Grade: 3/5 stars. Grim, but compelling. This was pretty tedious to get through, but it is one of those books in which the story's climax makes everything else worthwhile.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bless you...just not sure I could do it. Dispassionate and war? Just makes me sad...