A Dirty Book about World War I: Birdsong

I finally got through Birdsong (1993) by Sebastian Faulks and number 17 on the BBC book list.  It took me nearly a full semester to get through it, partly because I was busy with reading and writing for my Ph.D. work, and partly because the novel seemed to lag in certain places, and I had a hard time picking it back up again.

The narrative jumps between time periods.  This isn’t that hard to follow, unless you read a lot of professional communication theory in between reading it and you wait a week or so; then it becomes a little tricky remembering who everybody is, especially in the scenes about WWI and the trenches.  Those are also heartrending, and I commend Faulks for giving a realistic and gritty portrayal of what warfare then was really like.

However, other parts of the novel were completely unrealistic. My biggest problem with the novel is also the biggest theme: the love affair between Isabelle and Stephen.  It takes up the first portion of the novel, and while it is gripping and full of conflict, it was also graphic and explicit, in ways that I’m not quite sure how to describe.  I would not have finished this book if not for my goal to read all of the books on the BBC list.  It was dirty.  Some of you might not be bothered by that.  If so, go for it.  For me, I tried to skim and skip as much of that as possible.

birdsong cover

While the love between Isabelle and Stephen was compelling, it seemed to be solely based on physical attraction, and therefore it lacked some depth for me.  As a reader, I found it hard to comprehend exactly how or why the affair started, for Isabelle is a married woman, and it isn’t clear what the two lovers had in common.  The affair mostly serves to create conflict, for they conduct it in Isabelle’s house under the nose of her husband, and it then sets the stage for the rest of the novel, in which we know they still love each other but we don’t know if they’ll be able to be together, find one another, or reconcile.

The last part of the novel visits the present day, with a descendent of Stephen’s looking into his war service in an attempt to know him.  While this part was fascinating to me as an avid researcher of family history, it also seemed contrived and I wasn’t sure what purpose it served.  I suppose his granddaughter’s discovery is a twist, but it is a “secret” we readers are already well aware of, so it lacks the suspense necessary to make the read intriguing.

Overall, the book isn’t well written. It has its high moments, but it also has its problems.  I wouldn’t recommend it.  However, the reviews on Goodreads seems to be divided.  Either people loved it or they hated it.  You might love it, so don’t let me stop you.

I do plan on watching the Masterpiece miniseries made of this novel.  I suspect it will cut most of the explicit sex scenes and focus more on the historical aspects and the romance, rather than lust.  I hope I’m right, or I’ll be disappointed again, for I wanted to like this book.  I enjoyed the first few chapters, and I had difficulty putting it down at first.  Then it lagged and dragged and I barely made it through.

Hopefully, you made it through this post about it!