Sebastian Faulks


Book review by Anthony Campbell. Copyright © Anthony Campbell (2000).

There have been many fictional accounts of the First World War, so if you write a new one it had better be good. This one is. The writing is impressive throughout; Faulk's prose is always exact and elegant and occasionally it rises to real lyricism, without ever being forced. The dialogue sounds authentic, without the irritating linguistic anachronisms that so often mar historical novels set in the recent past. The experience of trench warfare is made so vivid that sometimes it is hard to go on reading, but go on one does, because everything is seen through the eyes of characters: mainly those of the central character, Stephen, with whom one feels emotionally involved. A link exists with the modern era, through Stephen's grand-daughter, who is trying to find out more about her grandfather, whom she never knew, and who is seeking to establish her own identity more definitively in the process. This helps to give a sense of continuity with the past.

The book starts before the war in Amiens, in 1910, when Stephen has an intense love affair with a married woman that comes to an unsatisfactory end. Sexual passion is a notoriously difficult subject to depict in a novel, in spite of, or perhaps because of, our modern view that 'anything goes', but here Faulks manages it well.

The novel then shifts in time to 1916, when we encounter Stephen, already an officer promoted from the ranks, enduring the nightmare world of the trenches. The horror of this experience is depicted objectively; the facts are allowed to speak for themselves, and are all the more telling for that. Undoubtedly Faulks has done his homework and you always feel that his descriptions are based on documented fact, but they are so well integrated into the narrative that you never have the impression of being given a history lesson. This is in spite of the fact that some central scenes in the novel are set in a relatively unfamiliar context, that of the mining tunnels that both sides constructed between their respective trench networks. The Allies and the Germans both dug these mines and countermines; sometimes, as Faulks illustrates, one side would succeed in detonating explosions that destroyed the enemy tunnels, killing the sappers or burying them alive. To describe the technicalities of this in fiction isn't easy, but Faulks manages it well by letting us see it through the eyes of one of the sappers.

The book is not, perhaps, an unqualified success. There are aspects of Stephen's character that are not wholly resolved. He didn't know his parents; he was brought up, first by his grandparents, then in an institution, before being taken away by a man he didn't know who became his guardian and whom he doesn't care for. This part is rather unclear and so is Stephen's level of education, which is left undefined but appears to be higher than might be expected from his background. His religious views are also left somewhat nebulous; he occasionally prays when under stress and once he receives Holy Communion before an assault, but for the most part I suspect that he is an agnostic. On leave in England he has an experience of nature mysticism that has no connection with Christianity.

The book closes on a note of affirmation, when Elizabeth, Stephen's grand-daughter, gives birth to a baby whom she names after a boy, the son of one of the sappers, who died during the war. This could easily have seemed sentimental or over-symbolic, but I think it comes off because we have been shown that it fits in with Elizabeth's increasing determination to discover her family history. By any standards, Birdsong an impressive achievement: not light reading, but it will stay in your mind long after you close the book.

%T Birdsong
%A Faulks, Sebastian
%I Vintage
%C London
%D 1994
%G ISBN 9780099387916
%P 503 pp
%O Paperback
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