Monday, 15 July 2013

Book review: Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks

Happy Monday! I've just returned from a wedding in France. I can't believe it's come around so quickly; we received the invite last year and now it's all done!!
Although, I'm a bit (a lot) disappointed because I didn’t reach my 18% body fat goal. I know I’m the only one accountable, so I’m just going to work a lot harder. I don’t want to disregard my hard work so far, as I have reduced my b.f from 25% to 21%, but my next aim is 20% for my birthday in August.
Enough of that. To celebrate the lovely weather we’ve been having, here is a book review of one of the saddest and most moving novels I've ever read.
This book was tragic, moving and surprisingly educational, given I have read and studied a lot of World War One literature. 
The story begins in Amiens in 1910, and quite quickly an affair develops between Stephen Wraysford, the main character, and Isabelle Azaire. The love story between them is initially driven by lust, but as the novel progresses their relationship becomes more complex and encompasses Isabelle’s sister, Jeanne, who I believe is the true heroine of the story.
One of the elements I particularly liked is that neither Stephen nor Isabelle are particularly likeable; they are not typical heroes or heroines, but written with all the foibles and inconsistencies of the human character. I also admire how Faulks has inextricably woven their story and the consequences of their affair into the greater narrative.
Jack Firebrace is another main character, whose personal story is also saddening. He is the more typical hero because when he suffers personal tragedy, the reader feels a desperate sadness for him, whereas Wraysford is a much harder character to develop a fondness for. I found his narrative educational because I didn’t previously have much knowledge of the soldiers who worked underground. The danger is made apparent and Faulks is successful in creating the claustrophobia of the tunnels.
The only element I disliked was the story of Elizabeth Benson, Wraysford’s granddaughter. The novel clearly moves between the war and Benson’s story, set in the 70s, however I felt her interest in Wraysford’s experiences unconvincing and forced. It felt like a convenient way to connect their lives and thereby reveal to the reader the consequences of Wraysford’s and Isabelle’s affair.
As a character, I strongly dislike Benson because she is an adulteress who suffers no remorse for her actions. Compared with Wraysford, who does the same thing, she is selfish and driven only by her own desires. Wraysford’s affair seems to reveal a different world to Isabelle, one of affection and passion, and while I don’t believe she is truly set free, I think this is because she is a character who never truly knows what she wants.
However, one useful element of Benson’s story is that we meet one of Wraysford’s comrades as an old man. It is uncomfortable and sickening to learn that this brave young soldier is reduced to a helpless, incomprehensible invalid because of his experiences. It is a poignant and continual reflection of the devastation caused by the war.
The novel is, of course, bleak, and the violence is uncensored; the description of the injuries, deaths and dead bodies is sickeningly acute, yet I felt this was the second most convincing portrayal of the war I’ve ever read (second only to Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front; Remarque actually was a soldier on the German side during the war, and the book is based on his experiences).
Although I have criticised Benson’s story, I still rate this as 5/5 and think this is a must-read, especially for those with an interest in WWI. The desperation to stay alive is so real that when one of the most likeable characters dies, I won’t reveal who, it feels like a personal loss, and the reader finally begins to comprehend the brevity of 1914-1918.

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