By Sebastian Faulks“It’s alright,” said Stephen. “The guns have stopped.” “It’s not that,” said Weir. “It’s the noise. Can’t you hear it?” Stephen had noticed nothing but the silence that followed the guns. Now, as he listened, he could hear what Weir had meant: it was a low, continuous moaning. He could not make out any individual pain, but the sound ran down to the river on their left and up over the hill for half a mile or more. As his ear became used to the absence of guns, Stephen could hear it more clearly: it sounded to him as though the earth itself was groaning. “Oh God, oh God.” Weir began to cry. “What have we done, what have we done? Listen to it. We’ve done something terrible, we’ll never get back to how it was before.”
Describing Birdsong is not an easy task. Nothing about it is simple. Not the plot, not the morals, not the emotions. It is full of both unadulterated joy and overwhelming sadness. I suppose it is a picture of life.
At first, it seems this book is just about an explosive love affair. (And it does contain some pretty explicit sex scenes.) The moral ambiguity of the characters makes it difficult to know what outcome to hope for. Isabelle, a young French woman, is married and has two children. Her husband does not love her and occasionally beats her, yet her English lover wants them to flee in the night leaving behind her friends and children. Neither option takes the moral high ground. In the midst of struggling with confused emotions, you are suddenly transported six years into the future and into the trenches of World War I. The affair is put to the back of the mind, and the only goal is survival.
It was then I realized that Birdsong isn’t simply about love. It is a study of human nature and what drives a man. While selfishness and passion had inspired a love affair, these sins paled in comparison to the atrocities committed in the Battle of the Somme. What drove humanity to live in such squalor, and when would it stop? How far would they go? Some were driven by the desire to see their family again. Others, by the love of country or their fellow men. Still some were only driven by their will to survive. While trying to both ask and answer these questions, you suddenly jump forward in time again. This time, 62 years to 1978 London. Somehow this time period seems the worst and most sinful. Not because we fought a terrible war, but because we forgot. How did we forget? And how are we supposed to respectfully move past the war?
After reading a book like Birdsong, one is left feeling mentally and emotionally exhausted. You see a man’s darkest days, most treasured moments, and most beloved relationships flash before your eyes. But with Faulks’s writing, you don’t just see it. You live it. That is why Faulks is great. His writing is so vivid. While many writers use vague, flowery terms, Faulks leaves no detail to the readers’ imagination. From the pristine curves of Isabelle’s body to the bloody carcasses of the war, you can see it in your mind as if you are standing there. He drags you from a pre-war countryside in France, to the mind-numbing horrors of the World War I trenches, to the shockingly complacent, selfish streets of 1970s London. And in each reality you can almost taste the air, smell the blood, and hear the rattling subway cars. You are no longer reading about these time periods, you are experiencing them.