Twenty year old Stephen Wraysford arrives in France in 1910. As an orphan Stephen grew up in care but has an education provided by his well meaning guardian and now he’s been sent by the textile company he works for in England to observe the new manufacturing process used in a factory in Amiens, owned by Rene Azaire. Behind the large, bourgeois home of the Azaire’s, where Stephen is going to stay, the river Somme breaks into small picturesque canals where fisherman sit and blackbirds sing overhead. In his pockets he has a leather notebook, his rail ticket and a knife.

Stephen’s passionate, life changing affair with Isabelle, Madame Azaire, is the focus of this first part, and when he writes about her in his journal written in a private code, ‘pulse’ is the word he uses for her. This is a section that glitters with life, the sounds and the newness, even the demonstrations at the factory for more pay are lives being lived with hope for social progression.

To be honest, I found Stephen and Isabelle’s affaire a bit troubling. Stephen is only 20 yet so confident in his sexual prowess and Isabelle is always available and compliant, as are all the women in the book. I see that Birdsong is a set text in schools and I felt quite uneasy at these stereotypes being taught to a class of 17 year olds. But what it does tell us about Stephen is that caution is not a part of his personality, and that will help him greatly in the next time period which is 1916.

Because of his education Stephen rises up the ranks in the army, providing a link between the infantry and the officers. This is a book that’s full of recurring themes, motifs and imagery and Stephen finds himself back beside the river Somme with its trenches, mud, rats, letters and food parcels, lice infested uniforms and camaraderie. He leads his men over the top and joins the ‘sewer rats’ digging tunnels forty-five feet underground. It’s the men that are at the centre of the story and the lives and families they’ve left behind, their bravery and disbelief are described in detail that’s both exciting and gruesome.

What I found really surprising though were the sections set in 1978. Elizabeth Benson’s story begins in the tunnel of the London Underground as she travels home from a business trip to Germany. ‘the train of the Central Line fitted its tube like a bullet in the barrel of a rifle.’ There’s a newspaper article about the 60th anniversary of the 1918 Armistice which encourages her to ask her French mother about her grandfather, a man she knows nothing about. While searching in her mothers attic she finds the blue notebooks written in code. . .

Elizabeth’s story works really well in the structure of the novel and helps to bring everything to a satisfying conclusion, but what I found incredible was the attitude to the first world war in the 1970’s, which is basically one of disinterest. Sebastian Faulks says in his introduction to my 2014 copy that even when he began his research for Birdsong in 1988 there were only ‘occasional lectures at the Imperial War Museum. . . battlefield tours in which a handful of surviving veterans took part. . . the audience for these things was what we now call ‘niche”. And I realised that when I was at school in the ’70’s we didn’t do anything about the 1st World War. It seems almost unbelievable now when we’re saturated with novels, memoirs and films about or from this time. Why is that? In his excellent introduction Faulks wonders about a sense of panic and/or guilt at the end of the century; that we had relegated the war to an imperialistic time out of keeping with social democracy and so not recognised or admitted the enormity of the sacrifice. He says about writing Birdsong:

‘. . . whatever its literary and thematic aims. . . and with whatever clumsiness, an attempt to offer a belated gesture of love and understanding to the men who were hurled into that catastrophic war.’

11 thoughts on “Birdsong

  1. Not a title I’ve read or felt encouraged to read. When this was first published it seemed to gain the reputation of being not only readable but somehow “worthy”. Frankly I don’t why it’s supposed to be all that groundbreaking in drawing attention to the First World War I: I studied WWI at school in the 60s, and later as a teacher accompanied at least one school trip to the trenches.

    Meanwhile the TV adaptation of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth aired in 1979 and Blackadder Goes Forth with its poignant final scene was broadcast in 1989 before Faulks’s novel was issued. Methinks he must have been sitting under a stone…

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    1. ha ha, maybe he was under a stone, my husband David didn’t agree with him either (maybe it was just my school that stuck with the Tudors!) I wouldn’t say it was worthy or groundbreaking but the scenes in the trenches and tunnels are extremely good and enhanced by his touching on life back in England, more or less carrying on as normal. Not a must read but a good read (overall) I would say.

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  2. I loved Birdsong and hope that the teenagers who are forced to read it find something in it to love too, or if not, to think about. The long-term message or question that this story had for me was, how far can people be pushed beyond what is sane?
    I take your point about Stephen’s early romance, though.

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    1. He made a good point I think of everyone being in the same position, all being asked to behave in inhumane ways whatever side they were on. I wonder what teenagers do think of it or of the 1st WW?

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  3. Jane thank you for this review. You have really helped me to think about my own reading of this book (Read in 2015). What stands out for me is the section during the war when we are taken into the tunnels. And I have no memory of the contemporary story at all! Looking back I see that I scored it (subjectively) 7.5/10 yet my recollection is that I found it hardgoing and at times tedious. It has always been a book I feel I would get so much more from on a second reading. Hopefully one day I’ll find out!

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    1. hmm, I might give it 8 or even 8.5 since it was so readable! The tunnels will be the part I remember too, I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about them before, it’s usually the trenches isn’t it?

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  4. I’ve heard about this novel, but never felt inclined to pick it up. Thanks for a great review, which has given me a better idea of what it’s like. Interesting, that WW1 didn’t get much attention in the 1970s. Maybe I’ll read this one day, but I feel there are so many books about the wars and it’s easy to get too much.

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    1. I’m beginning to wonder now if it was just me and Sebastian Faulks that didn’t cover the 1st ww at school! Although this was very good and very readable I’m surprised it got as much attention as it did when it was published. . .

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  5. I fear poor Isabelle reminded me of one of those bendy toys which used to be popular, whose limbs could be arrayed in a multitude of ways at the whim of the owner… haha, did you know he won a Bad Sex award for this book? However, I found the war sections excellent, though I was less keen on that last section. Interesting – I don’t really feel that I didn’t know about WW1 in the 1970s, and it was definitely a major item on our history curriculum. (The Scottish curriculum is of course different to the English one.) My father was born on the day the Treaty of Versailles was signed, his father having been a professional soldier (as opposed to conscript) throughout, and my mother’s uncle died in the Somme and is buried in one of the military graveyards over there, so I’ve always felt that WW1 was a major part of our family history, so perhaps I was unusually aware of it for the time?

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    1. I didn’t know he won that award and I’m pleased he did! Hmm, I’m beginning to think it was just my school (and SF’s) oh well. How interesting about your family, so you were Elizabeth, although you didn’t have to go searching about in an attic for answers, what a sense of connection. I didn’t feel particularly engaged with Elizabeth, I thought all the women were a very male portrayal, but her story provided a good link and of course the birth, regeneration etc. played well with the men coming out of the tunnel and rebirth (it really is a set text!)


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