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Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

Birdsong (1993)

by Sebastian Faulks

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: French Trilogy (2)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
4,3971151,116 (4.02)352
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» See also 352 mentions

English (113)  Dutch (2)  All languages (115)
Showing 1-5 of 113 (next | show all)
Birdsong is a multi-layered compelling story of personal love and loss and of the horrors of World War I in the trenches. It spans time from pre-war 1910 to the war years to the late 1970's. The protagonist is Stephen Wraysford, a young man who visits Amiens, France in 1910 on assignment from his employer to learn about the French textile trade. Stephen is hosted by the Azaire family whose patriarch is a textile manufacturer. Isabelle is the wife of the widowed Azaire. She is the youngest daughter of an overbearing family who has married Azaire through an arrangement. Isabelle is unable to conceive a child with Azaire who descends into cruel behavior toward her. Stephen is drawn to Isabelle in a torrid affair resulting in her leaving Azaire to live with Stephen. After trying to establish their own life, Isabelle, overcome by guilt, leaves Stephen without notice.

The novel shifts to 1916 where Stephen has become an officer in the British army. Here, and throughout the war chapters of the book, is described the horrendous conditions that the soldiers experienced in the trenches. The incredible slaughter of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 is featured, a futile and horrific sacrifice of the British in an attempt to break through the German line. Faulks's depiction of war fare in the Great War is vivid and shocking.

The novel shift abruptly to 1978 where a young women, Elizabeth Benson, discovers some papers in her mother's attic that intrigue her. It appears that her grandfather, whom she hardly knew, was in the first world war. Most fascinating find is a diary written in a sort of code. She takes the diary to an amateur cryptologist who sets about trying to decipher it.

The book turns back to the war in 1917. Stephen has survived some war wounds and while on leave returns to Amiens. He encounters Jeanne, the sister of Isabelle, and with her help reconnects with Isabelle. Isabelle has suffered a facial wound in a shelling of her home and we learn that she has become the lover of a German officer who had been quartered in their home. Isabelle and Jeanne both conceal that Isabelle has a young child. Isabelle leaves for Munich to be with her German lover and Stephen and Jeanne develop a friendship over several months.

Stephen's unit is stationed with a detachment of miners whose role is to mine tunnels under the German lines to plant explosives. The Germans are doing the same and there are bloody clashes as they periodically encounter each other. At the culmination of Stephen's war experience he goes on an underground scouting mission with a miner. A bomb detonated by the Germans that traps Stephen and a miner. The tale of Stephen's escape from the underground is a depiction of an ascent from hell. Much of the metaphorical of the
power of the novel derives from the images of being underground in trenches or tunnels.

Elizabeth pursues the mystery of the diary. When it is finally decoded and she learns of the terrible war experiences of her grandfather and that Stephen has married Jeanne after the war. When she reveals this to her mother she learns that her mother is not the daughter of Stephen and Jeanne, but is the child of Stephen and Isabelle. Isabelle died of influenza after the war and the child was brought up by Jeanne and Stephen.

This is a richly textured story of love, loss, degradation and the abysmal atrocities of the war. It is incredibly powerful, particularly in its depictions of the life in the trenches and the horrible affects of the war on those who fought it. There is nothing glorious about what these men endured and its darkness gives us the perspective on war that we should hold. ( )
  stevesmits | Jan 31, 2015 |

Read all my reviews on http://urlphantomhive.booklikes.com

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, thank you!

Perhaps I just read this book at the wrong moment in time for me. I thought it would be a great time, given all the events commemorating the start of the First World War. Perhaps this book just wasn't for me. I haven't decide yet which I think is more likely. But please let me explain why I didn't enjoy a book loved by many others.

First of all, I felt a bit cheated at at the beginning. It's said to be a novel of the Great War, but the first quarter of the book takes place in 1910 France. 1910! Years before the war starts. I understand you need to set the scene in peacetime (perhaps) or at least wish to introduce the main character in peacetime. But this is no longer an introduction, this is 25% of the book! Had it been a very interesting 25% book I might have been forgiving, but it's not. It's a sloppy romance and I can't stand them. I was actually just hoping for the war to begin, which says it all I suppose.

Then we move forward in time to 1916, and the story of the beginning of the war is very summarily given. Stephen was in France, but went back to England at the beginning of the war to help fight the Germans in the British army, and has since gained some ranks. The part about life in the trenches actually is quite interesting, but the writing felt a bit impersonal. This might very well be because Stephen himself isn't a likeable character and he seems to be detached from all that is happening.

Once again I got annoyed when the scene moved to the late seventies and I got information on people who were obviously somehow related (it's easy to guess this correctly) to Stephen in yet another sloppy romance with new characters I couldn't care for either.

These last two stories continue to be told in turns, one more interesting to the other, as the story builds to it's climax. But I was just happy to finish the book because I didn't really like the story and the characters annoyed me. All female characters felt extremely flat and without some kind of own vision. And sexually frustrated Stephen wasn't likeable either. Actually the miners were the only ones who I kind of felt for, and I did feel sorry for them... ( )
  Floratina | Jan 4, 2015 |
Birdsong is broken into seven different sections covering three different periods of main character Stephen Wraysford's life, 1910, 1916 - 1918, and 1978 - 1979 (the last being through the eyes of his granddaughter, Elizabeth). When we first meet Stephen in 1910 he is a young Englishman sent to France to observe operations at a textile mill in Amiens. It is there that he meets the beautiful and lonely Mrs. Isabelle Azaire. From the moment they meet, their attraction to one another is instantaneous and unavoidable. Even an innocent activity like pruning in the garden speaks volumes of what is to come. It isn't long before the two give in to their carnal desires and commit adultery. If you are shy about sex scenes, there are a few you may want to skip. The second encounter in the library is pretty racy! The attraction between the lovers is so strong that Isabelle runs away with Stephen, only to be wracked by guilt causing her to leave him a short time later. We don't know what happens to this couple after Isabelle's leaving. This is a mystery that hangs over the next section of Stephen's life.
When we meet up again with Stephen it is six years later and he is a soldier, sent to work in the tunnels below enemy lines. This section of the book, covering World War I, is incredibly graphic and haunting. Faulk's portrayals of battle are as realistic as they are heartbreaking. Interspersed between Stephen's World War I experiences is the life of his granddaughter, Elizabeth. When she becomes curious about his life she sets out to learn all that she can and ends up learning more about herself in the process. History repeats itself and comes full circle for Wraysford's legacy. ( )
  SeriousGrace | Jun 18, 2014 |
From the front cover: ""Overpowering and beautiful.... A great novel." -Simon Schama. The New Yorker"

I agree wholeheartedly.

This novel will stay with me for a long time. Yes, there is a love story. But, far more than that, this is a novel of war. In 1910, a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, is sent to France by the company he works for. He stays with a family in the town of Amiens, and begins a life changing love affair. The books starts there, but quickly moves on to 1916 where Lieutenant Wraysford has been fighting in the trenches. Stephen and some of the other main characters are really well drawn. You feel their fear, bravery, and caring about the men they know. You feel their need of not wanting to get too close to the men that they don't know, because they know they are all going to die. They all struggle with understanding why they are doing what they are doing, and they try to find belief in some higher power to give some hope to what lies ahead. The descriptions of the trench warfare, and the tunneling under "No Man's Land" are very vivid and probably the best descriptions of the terrible sacrifice that I have ever read. I found myself really caring about these people and yet knowing that I shouldn't get too attached. After all, it was war. ( )
  NanaCC | Jun 11, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (18 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Sebastian Faulksprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Davids, TinkeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
West, SamuelNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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'When I go from hence, let this be my parting word, that what I have seen is unsurpassable.' Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali
For Edward
First words
The boulevard du cange was a broad, quiet street that marked the eastern flank of the city of Amiens.
Madame Azaire had not fully engaged Stephen's eye
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English (2)

Book description
Published to international critical and popular acclaim, this intensely romantic yet stunningly realistic novel spans three generations and the unimaginable gulf between the First World War and the present. As the young Englishman Stephen Wraysford passes through a tempestuous love affair with Isabelle Azaire in France and enters the dark, surreal world beneath the trenches of No Man's Land. (0-679-77681-8)
Haiku summary
Stephen's passionate
Love affair with Isabelle,
Fights in World War One.
Brave soldiers digging
Claustrophobic tunnels. Trench
Warfare on both sides.

Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679776818, Paperback)

Readers who are entranced by the sweeping Anglo sagas of Masterpiece Theatre will devour Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks's historical drama. A bestseller in England, there's even a little high-toned erotica thrown into the mix to convince the doubtful. The book's hero, a 20-year-old Englishman named Stephen Wraysford, finds his true love on a trip to Amiens in 1910. Unfortunately, she's already married, the wife of a wealthy textile baron. Wrayford convinces her to leave a life of passionless comfort to be at his side, but things do not turn out according to plan. Wraysford is haunted by this doomed affair and carries it with him into the trenches of World War I. Birdsong derives most of its power from its descriptions of mud and blood, and Wraysford's attempt to retain a scrap of humanity while surrounded by it. There is a simultaneous description of his present-day granddaughter's quest to read his diaries, which is designed to give some sense of perspective; this device is only somewhat successful. Nevertheless, Birdsong is an unflinching war story that is bookended by romances and a rewarding read.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:44:12 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Rootless and heartbroken Stephen Wraysford joins the army at the outbreak of World War I. He and his men are given the assignment to tunnel under the German lines and set off bombs. The comaraderie, love, and loyalty of the soldiers contrasts with the horrors of the underground, air, and trench warfare.… (more)

» see all 8 descriptions

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