Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

sebastian-faukesBirdsong by Sebastian Faulks was recently book of the month in my book group. It is a book often studied for exams. It is an epic love story set against the First World War, a modern classic that was adapted for film in 2012 with which I was already familiar. However, a book group can never go far wrong with a novel by Sebastian Faulks. Another of his novels after P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves and the Wedding Bells at Sebastian Charles Faulks CBE is a British novelist, journalist and broadcaster. He is best known for his historical novels set in France including The Girl at the Lion d’Or and Charlotte Gray. He was born aon 20 April, 1953. He was educated at Emanuel College, Cambridge, England and Wellington College, Berkshire. Birdsong is another of his novels set in France.

Stephen Wraysford  marches to the front on the day before the Somme Offensive.He leads his company down a track across farmland and comes upon something odd. Wraysford describes: “two dozen men, naked to the waist, digging a hole thirty yards square at the side of the path” and realised that they were digging a mass grave. When his men see it, the reader is told: “The songs died on their lips and the air was reclaimed by the birds.” The songs “die” and hs men will too, almost as readily.

Birdsong has to imagine mechanised slaughter.Faulks’s the description of the first day of the Battle of the Somme, the reader is told of death that comes so thick and fast, the narrative cannot pause for individuals. Stephen watches as a line of troops comes forward into the range of German machine guns, “which traversed them with studied care until every man had gone down in a diagonal line from first to last.”

The soldiers at the front have to learn not to be shocked, not even to be emotional, at any particular person’s death, and the manner of Faulks’s narration has to reflect this. Deaths are narrated through the eyes of particular characters. From Stephen’s original platoon, only three men remain alive at the front. “The names and faces of the others were already indistinct in his memory.” Sometimes Stephen recalled “a voice, a smile, a habitual trick of speech”, but these are dismembered aspects of personality rather than clues to any distinct individuals. This is a war in which explosives can reduce men to dust.

Tens of thousands of men simply go missing, their names recorded on monuments such as the Arch at Thiepvale. It shocks the reader today, as much as Stephen’s grand-daughter Elizabeth in the section of the novel set in the 1970s: “names teeming, reeling, over surfaces of yards, of hundreds of yards, over furlongs of stone”. The novel kindles indignation by reflecting this oblivion.

The readers’ sympathies are manipulated.In one battle, Stephen finds himself fighting alongside a fellow officer called Ellis and trys to talk him out of despair. Reinforcements arrive just in time, and Stephen retires with his men to their own trench. “Ellis had been killed by machine gun fire.” We heard him speaking a few lines earlier, but his death is noted in passing. Just because the reader cares about a character does not mean that he will be saved.

Michael Weir, is a friend of Stephen. At one point the reader learns about Weir on homebirdsong leave, and painfully witnesses his faltering attempts to describe his experiences to his father. Naturally, his father does not want to hear about his son’s ordeal. The novel carefully acquaints you with this nervous, intelligent, fearful man, but then Weir is killed almost casually. It happens in a scene between Weir and Stephen. Weir walks towards him one day, Stephen notices that some parapet sandbags have become misplaced and is about to warn him. “Weir climbed on to the firestep to let a ration party go past and a sniper’s bullet entered his head above the eye, causing trails of his brain to loop out on to the sandbags behind him.”

After all the deaths that he has seen around him, Jack Firebrace thinks himself “immune to death”. He imagines that he will survive, also that death cannot  touch him. How wrong he is. No sooner does he have this thought than something happens to change it. He receives a letter from his wife, Margaret, in which she mentions that their only child, John, “has been very poorly indeed and the doctor says it is diphtheria”.  The novelist painfully manipulates the reader’s emotions, again. Among so many deaths, the possible death of this little boy, whom they know only through the character’s intense affection for him, is the one that affects the reader most.

When Jack receives a subsequent letter from his wife, he keeps it unopened during his next mission, as if keeping his son alive that bit longer. Of course the child is dead, and his father’s every reason for imagining his own survival dissolves.


Birdsong is an adept piece of writing that is evocative of the horrors of war and the emotion that arise from those horrors. If you have not read Birdsong, I recommend it. If you have, reread it. If you are required to study it, do not fear Birdsong: it is a most rewarding book.

Valerie Penny


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