First UK edition cover
|Genre||War novel, Family saga|
|16 September 1993 (UK)|
|Media type||Print (Hardcover and Paperback)|
Birdsong is a 1993 war novel and family saga by English author Sebastian Faulks. It is Faulks' fourth novel, and follows the experiences of a British man, Stephen Wraysford, prior to and during World War I. Like many other WWI novels, the thematic focus of the book is how the experience of trauma shapes individual psyches.
Birdsong is part of a trilogy of novels by Sebastian Faulks, together with The Girl at the Lion d'Or and Charlotte Gray; the three novels are linked through location, history and several minor characters. The novel came 13th in a 2003 BBC survey called the Big Read which aimed to find Britain's favourite book. It has also been adapted three times under the same title – for radio (1997), the stage (2010) and television (2012).
Birdsong has an episodic structure, and is split into seven sections which move between three different periods of time before, during and after the war. Throughout Birdsong there are echoes of several war poets such as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen.
The first stage, starts in pre-war Amiens, France. Stephen Wraysford, visits and lives with René Azaire, to learn about the French textile industry. He stays with Azaire and his family, his wife Isabelle and Azaire's children from a wife who died, Lisette and Grégoire. Stephen learns about comforts of middle class life in Northern France, and also witnesses the worker unrest and a threatened strike. He discovers an uneasy relationship between Azaire and the significantly younger Isabelle; at first Stephen is intrigued by her but soon falls in love, after witnessing Azaire's neglect and abuse. Azaire, embarrassed that they can't have another child, beats her in erotic-consolatory anger. Meanwhile Isabelle helps one of Azaire's workers give food to the families of striking workers, stirring rumours that she is having an affair with that worker.
Stephen's love of Isabelle transforms into a passionate affair. Isabelle confronts Azaire with the truth and he evicts Stephen and Isabelle leaves with Stephen. Running away to Southern France, Isabell becomes pregnant, momentarily loses faith in the relationship. Without telling Stephen, she flees, returning to her family home and the one constant in her life – her sister Jeanne. Later, Isabelle's father makes a deal with Azaire for her return in exchange for her maintained honour; Isabelle is forgiven but soon realises her mistake. Stephen hears no more of her.
The second vignette rejoins Stephen, when he is a lieutenant in the British Army at the start of the war. Through his eyes, Faulks tells the reader about the First Day on the Somme in July 1916 and the Battle of Messines near Ypres in the following year. The energetic character described in the first chapter of the novel contrasts with the depiction of Stephen hardened by his experiences of war. During his time in the trenches, we learn of Stephen's mental attitude to the war and the guarded comradeship he feels for his friend Captain Michael Weir and the rest of his men. However, Wraysford is regarded as a cold and distant officer by his men. He refuses all offers of leave; so committed is he to fighting and staying involved with the war.
His story is paralleled to that of Jack Firebrace, a former miner, employed along the Tunnelling companies of the Royal Engineers in the British trenches to listen for the enemy and plant mines under the German trenches. Jack is particularly motivated to fight because of the love he has for his deceased son John back home. Faulks describes how a soldier called Hunt is terrified of going underground as an exploding shell could trap the soldiers underground causing them to suffocate. Stephen is badly injured but survives.
The troops are told to make an attack on the Hawthorne Ridge but the attack seems doomed to fail with the senior officers being blamed.
Stephen feels lonely and writes to Isabelle, feeling that he has no one else that he can express his feelings to. He writes about his fears that he will die, and confesses that he has only ever loved her. This section of the novel ends with a bombardment leaving many soldiers in no man's land.
Alongside the main story, there is the inquisitive narrative of Stephen's granddaughter, Elizabeth, who, whilst struggling with her married boyfriend, Robert, unearths the stories of World War I and the remaining links to Stephen's experiences at Marne, Verdun and the Somme. Elizabeth finds Stephen's journals and endeavours to decipher them.
Weir is on leave and finds it impossible to communicate to his family how bad the war is. After a chance encounter with Jeanne, Isabelle's sister, while on leave in Amiens, Stephen convinces her to allow him to meet with Isabelle and finds that her face has been disfigured by a shell with scarring caused from the injury. Stephen discovers that Isabelle is now in a relationship with Max, a German soldier.
Stephen is able to return to England and feels relief at being able to enjoy the Norfolk countryside away from the trenches. When he meets Isabelle's sister Jeanne, he tells her how he dreads returning to the front line after leave. Stephen's closest friend, Michael Weir, is eventually killed by a sniper's bullet while in a trench out of the front line.
Elizabeth continues researching the war and talks to war veterans Gray and Brennan (who knew Stephen) about their experiences. During this period, she also becomes pregnant with Robert's child.
The novel ends with Stephen and Firebrace being trapped underground after a German mine explosion; with their way out blocked, they talk and share their experiences, with Firebrace grieving for his dead son John and Stephen telling him of his former love for Isabelle. Stephen finds some explosives and Firebrace, himself close to death, tells him how to lay them in order to blast their way out of the tunnel. Before Stephen completes the task, Firebrace dies. The explosion successfully clears a way out for Stephen, and he is rescued by Levi, a Jewish German soldier as the war ends. An ending which is clearly inspired by – and deliberately echoes – Wilfred Owen's 1918 poem "Strange Meeting".
Elizabeth finally decides to reveal her pregnancy to her mother Françoise, who is surprisingly supportive. Over dinner, she learns her mother was raised by Stephen and Jeanne, who married and settled in Norfolk after her grandmother Isabelle's premature death due to the postwar influenza epidemic. Elizabeth and Robert then go on holiday to Dorset where she goes into labour and has a son, naming him John (after Jack Firebrace's late son), therefore keeping the promise which Stephen made to Jack when they were trapped in the tunnels under No Man's Land, over sixty years before. The book ends with Robert walking down the garden of the holiday cottage and having an immense sense of joy.
- René Azaire – Factory owner in Amiens. He states that Stephen will go to hell for his affair with his wife Isabelle. Embarrassed by his inability to have a child with his wife he beats Isabelle.
- Isabelle Azaire (Madame Azaire) née Fourmentier – René's wife. Isabelle has an affair with Stephen Wraysford while stuck in her unhappy marriage to René. However, after this brief affair Isabelle agrees to return to René (after Rene is convinced by Isabelle's father) and she is forgiven by the family. She is the mother of Françoise by Stephen, though she raised her daughter originally with a German soldier named Max.
- Lisette – Is the sixteen-year-old daughter of Azaire, and Step-Daughter to Isabelle. Lisette is attracted to Stephen and is nearer his age than Isabelle. She makes suggestive remarks to Stephen throughout his time at the house in Amiens. Eventually married Lucien Lebrun.
France 1916, 1917 and 1918
- Jack Firebrace – A tunneller or "sewer rat". He survived until 1918 when he became trapped while tunnelling and died.
- Captain Weir – An officer close to Stephen Wraysford killed by a German sniper.
- Jeanne Fourmentier – Isabelle's sister who forms a relationship with Stephen Wraysford.
England: 1978 and 1979
- Elizabeth Benson – Granddaughter of Stephen Wraysford. Elizabeth has a job in company which manufactures garments. She wants to find out more about World War I and her grandfather's actions. She does this by phoning elderly servicemen, visiting war memorials and translating Stephen's diary.
- Françoise – Elizabeth's mother, the biological daughter of Stephen and Isabelle who was raised by her father and aunt Jeanne.
- Irene – A colleague of Elizabeth.
- Bob – Irene's husband. He offers to translate Stephen Wraysford's war diaries for Elizabeth.
Birdsong has been said to be Sebastian Faulks' best work of fiction. It came 13th in a 2003 BBC survey called the Big Read, which aimed to find Britain's favourite book. It received an "Also Mentioned" credit in The Observer's 2005 poll of critics and writers to find the "Best British book of the last 25 years" (1980–2005). Birdsong was listed in The Telegraph as one of the most consistently selling books from 1998–2008, continuously in the top 5,000 sales figures.
Faulks' literary retelling of the events and attitudes towards the Battle of the Somme and life in the trenches is highly acclaimed, and is often likened to the work of writers such as Erich Maria Remarque and Ernest Hemingway, providing a modern contrast to World War I literature.
In 2012 it was adapted as a two-part television drama. The production starred Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Wraysford and Clémence Poésy as Isabelle Azaire, and was directed by Philip Martin, based on a screenplay by Abi Morgan.
- J. M. Winter (2006). Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century. Yale University Press. p. 40. ISBN 0-300-12752-9.
- MacCallum-Stewart, Esther (2007-01-01). ""If they ask us why we died": Children's Literature and the First World War, 1970-2005". The Lion and the Unicorn 31 (2): 176–188. doi:10.1353/uni.2007.0022. ISSN 1080-6563.
- "Bloomsbury Publishing". Bloomsbury.com. Archived from the original on 15 January 2008. Retrieved 12 December 2010.
- "The Big Read – Top 100 Books". BBC. Retrieved 12 December 2010.
- "The Big Read – Top 100 Books". BBC. Retrieved 12 December 2010.
- Adams, Stephen (8 August 2008). "The 12 top titles that booksellers must always stock". London: Telegraph. Retrieved 12 December 2010.
- Kemp, Stuart. "Berlin 2013: Nicholas Hoult Joins Cast of 'Birdsong'". The Hollywood Reporter.
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