” He was in a gallery of ghosts. The souls of all who had died, his friends and their companions; the spirits of the men they had killed, the German bodies that had been hurled upward in the exploding soil above the great mines they had laid: all the needless dead of the long war were grasping at his face with their cold hands. They reproached him for killing them; they mocked him for still being alive. ” (435)
At 482 pages, Birdsong is too long for the story it tells. In 1910, 20-year-old Stephen Wraysford comes to stay at Rene Azaire’s house on a business trip to visit the Frenchman’s textile factory in northern France. While Stephen soaks up the comfort of the upper-middle class home, Azaire’s workers foment unrest and threaten a strike. The gothic atmosphere of the opening chapters—in which Azaire’s wife plays the secret benefactor to a dyer and strange sobbing noise issues from her room at night—draws me right in. Despite Madame Azaire’s formality toward him and her punctilious ease of manner, Stephen senses in her a feeling toward him that is more than just politeness. Can this be a consequence of an unhappy marriage that is full of unease and tension?
She was an affectionate and dutiful wife to her husband, and he required no more from her; she did not love him, but he would have been frightened to have aroused such an unnecessary emotion . . . Madame Azaire grew into her new name. She was content with the role she had accepted and thought that her ambitious desires could be safely and permanently forgotten. (36)
The knowledge that Isabelle married out of convenience seems to have fueled Stephen’s desire and courage, who can no longer allow himself to be passively beguiled. As they consummate the affair, Isabelle feels enlivened and real. The more she imagines the degradation of her false modesty the more she feels excited. But the affair ends abruptly and is never reintroduced. Nor is Isabelle’s character. In later part of the novel it’s known that she was pregnant with Stephen’s child. But unfortunately Faulks never expounds on her motivations and discretion.
He had obliterated himself in her; he had purged his longing and desire; he had longed and invested himself in her body. In her trust ad love for him, he had deposited the unresolved conflicts of his life. Perhaps his self was still in her—betrayed and unhealed. (197)
War breaks out. Stephen transpires his suppressed frustrations and unexpressed violence of his life into hatred of his enemy: the Germans. The descriptions of war is both vivid and terrific. Stephen belongs to a regiment responsible for digging tunnels beneath France out into no-man’s-land. The farthest point of the network of rabbit warren provides an entrance to a useful if dangerous listening post close to the German lines. Birdsong is more about the harrowing stories and battles in the tunnels than the love story it claims. Through Stephen’s career, the book explores how warfare becomes rhythm of a normal life, the new reality, the world in which these men are now condemned to live in. While Stephen allows his mind to conjure up the Azaire house and memories of Isabelle, the details are lost. The portrayal of a make-believe world in which these soldiers choose to live is where the author really reaches his stride.
The most lackluster and disappointing part of the book is when Faulks introduces Elizabeth Benson in the 1970s. Intrigued by the anniversary of Armistice of 1918, she decides to unearth her grandfather’s history and learn about WWI. The plot device is so artificial and contrived that it destroys any credibility the novel has to the point of her entr’acte. What follows about her relationship drama and how that which Faulks ties in with the war is even more unbelievable. The war alone would make Birdsong a great novel, as it focuses on Stephen’s mindful and emotional journey. His fear of birds should make great material for driving the story forward, instead of tying up the bundle with a character for whom readers don’t care. The novel needs some editing to tighten up the different elements that elaborate on the relationships between characters. I’m glad I have read it but it is obviously not a favorite.
482 pp. Trade Paperback. [
Read/Skim/ Toss] [ Buy/Borrow]