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!

30 thoughts on “A Dirty Book about World War I: Birdsong

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  1. Well done for persevering . I read this when in my late teens and it didn’t leave much of an impression. The only thing I can remember is in one of the dirty bits Isabelle is more concerned about making a mess than anything else that is going on. That probably doesn’t reflect very well on me…

  2. I tried to read it once and just found it dull so I gave up. I couldn’t understand why people seemed to think it was a great novel. I have to say I think the mini-series is also extremely tedious. The acting is flat and, as you say, the romance doesn’t seem to make any sense.

  3. This book was really popular a few years ago. At that time I didn’t read it but I read another book by Faulks set in WW II and was unimpressed. I wasn’t inclined to try Birdsong after that.

  4. Bummer. This has been on my To Read list for a long time, but I’ve kept putting it off because I’m not such a huge fan of war books… I think I still want to read it, but now I have more reasons to put it off, so we’ll see if I ever get around to it.

  5. I tried reading Birdsong a couple of years ago but stopped because I found the story dragged quite a bit and I just couldn’t get into it. I was thinking of trying to pick it up again, but I’m not sure… Thanks for your review 🙂

  6. Oof this sounds downright unpleasant! I’m trying to think of an example when explicit sex was well-presented AND justified in a book, but I don’t think I can… Suffice it to say that I tend to avoid that kind of thing!
    Also, I am skipping your review of “The Devil in the White City” because I’m planning to read the book soon as well!

  7. I remember starting this book when I was on vacation one year because the B&B where I stayed had a copy on the shelf. I skimmed parts of it and didn’t finish it. It didn’t leave an impression on me. Maybe I’ll try again one day but after reading your review, I don’t feel particularly inspired to pick it up.

  8. It’s refreshing to see someone call a book “dirty.” Most people fear that term will brand them as prudes. It is worse these days to be called a prude than a slut. There are no “prude walks” that young women take to flaunt their freedom before a fawning media.

  9. This was one of the first truly contemporary (as in when it was written, not when it was set) novels I read as an adult and it was a real disappointment, very dull and like many others I just don’t get what everyone sees in it

  10. I disliked this book in its entirety.

    I thought the love affair that took place in 1910 was spectacularly boring. The story that took place during the war (1914-1918) spend way too much time describing the circumstances in the mines and tunnels. The story that took place in 1978 was completely unnecessary.

    Overall, it was one of the most disappointing books I have ever read, considering the reputation it has.

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