The reading project has officially begun: I am reading the WWI books first, and have started with Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.
Birdsong is written with three story lines that intertwine: It begins in 1910 with a love affair, travels underneath the trenches over 1916-1918, and ends with a granddaughter in the 1970s. From reading around, this book seems to be one that divides opinion. However, I loved it and think it is a very accomplished modern story about the war.
I was surprised when the book began with a budding relationship but I think it helped to understand the characters before they were thrown into some very extreme circumstances. Giving an insight into people’s lives before the war helped me to imagine the sort of thing men might have been fighting for and I liked how Faulks included the men’s letters home. What separates this novel from others I have read before was the focus on the tunnels underneath no man’s land. There were miners on the British and German sides tunneling towards each other with mines to plant. Reading these parts of the book was so uncomfortable – Faulks is really good at making you feel completely claustrophobic.
There is a really moving paragraph written about the aftermath of Battle of the Somme:
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.’
The book, like All Quiet on the Western Front, contrasts the fighting on the battlefields with elements of nature like the birds singing. I think this technique is so effective because it highlights war as an aberration in nature. It is these bits that stick in my mind as being particularly sad.
The only part of the book I wasn’t too keen on was the 1970s story. In it, Elizabeth is starting to learn about her family history around wartime. It seemed almost false, because Elizabeth seems to be pretty stupid – I mean, we learned about WWI at school, surely they did in the seventies as well? On the other hand, whilst I know bits about the war and have visited some of the battlefields in France and Belgium, I don’t know as much about what my own great grandparents did. This is something I would like to find out more about.
Next I am moving on to another WWI classic: A Farewell to Arms.