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Sebastian Faulks: Birdsong

At the end of the century, for some reason, the Brits have turned backed to World War 1 and they have produced some pretty good books set in that war. First there was William Boyd, then Pat Barker and now what may be one of the best – Sebastian Faulks. Faulks has done his homework and read his predecessors – by chance I first read this novel just after reading Henry Williamson‘s Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight and the similarities in the descriptions of the men in action were too obvious to ignore – but his work is entirely original and one of the most worthwhile novels to come out of late 20th century England.

Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman, goes to stay with the Azaire family in France in 1910 to learn more about the textile business. He, inevitably, has an affair with Mme Azaire (who is much younger than her husband but eight years older than Stephen) and they elope. Jump to 1916 and the Western Front. Stephen is part of a group of tunnellers in the trenches. Faulks’ descriptions of the horrors of war are masterful – not just the blood and gore but also the effect of the war on the ordinary soldier. We are introduced to Stephen’s fellow-soldiers and their problems. Jack Firebrace, for example, receives a letter from his wife saying that their young son has died. But all this pales besides the Battle of the Somme which we experience with Stephen and the others in all its intensity. Jump to 1978 where we meet Elizabeth Benson, a thirty-eight year old Englishwoman off to the World War 1 battlefields for her holidays. We find out that she is Stephen’s granddaughter and we learn of her affair with a married man and her attempt to recapture her past. Back to 1917 and Stephen meets Jeane, Mme Azaire’s sister, and learns what has happened to Mme Azaire. Eventually, of course, Elizabeth recaptures her past and provides for the future.

Faulks tells us a wonderful story of a difficult love in time of war, of the horrors of war as well as the camaraderie of war and of how this affects subsequent generations but, positively, of how this generation recovers its past and moves on to the future. The wartime descriptions, particularly the collapse of the tunnel, are outstanding but Faulks superbly evokes the whole era and yet manages to jump seamlessly to the present and Elizabeth Benson. Read this book. You won’t regret it.

Publishing history

First published 1993 by Hutchinson