Sebastian Faulks,
(Vintage, 1997)

On a single morning 85 years ago during World War I, the British army lost 20,000 men dead and 40,000 wounded or missing. It is a measure of the brilliance of Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong that his prose makes palpable to the emotions such a bloody killing field as this, and the enormity of the loss, without recourse to such cold tallies of the historian. The novel concerns itself with one individual and his life around that fateful time and place -- the front line trenches at the river Somme in France, 1916.

Is Birdsong a war novel? Yes, in as much that it is a love story set against the backdrop of one of the greatest tragedies of 20th-century European (if not world) history. In the calm before that storm a young Englishman travels to France on business, staying in the family home of his factory-owner host. There ensues a highly charged affair between this man's wife, Isabelle Azaires, and the visitor, Stephen Wraysford.

Later Stephen fights in the war. He experiences the horrors of trench warfare both above ground but also beneath it as he accompanies miners deep underground as they attempt both to plant enormous mines beneath the fortifications of their enemy and deter the latter's reciprocal efforts.

There is madness in this novel, that of Stephen and Isabelle, overcome by a desire that forces them to furtively pursue their affair while at the same time maintaining a conventional distance from each other when in the company of the people with whom they share a roof, as well as the madness of soldiers trapped in, indeed forming part of the mechanism of, some grotesque mechanised charnel house, but who nevertheless cling desperately to the conventions of God, King and country.

But also there is hope and its birth, literally in the form of babies borne to women and sired by men who, for deeply felt reasons that they cannot articulate, exult in the birth of their children. The narrative links such births across the generations, concluding in 1979. In the opening passage of another great novel of the First World War, Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms, the image of pregnancy is employed in the description of a troop of heavily armed men trudging to the next killing field -- a portent of death; later, an unsought and unwanted pregnancy results in death. Faulks, no more than Hemingway, does not attempt to make "points" in his novel, but the birth of children in Birdsong is seen always as redemptive, especially the present-day birth at the conclusion, described as it is from the perspective of the women. Several times Stephen emerges from near entombment in the military tunnels of the front line, experiencing a virtual rebirth into the world of light and air.

There is irony here too, most subtly in the Irish names of soldiers at the front. Those familiar with the history of modern Ireland will know that in the year 1916, while these men fought and died for the Crown, other of their compatriots at home instigated, against that same Crown, the armed rebellion that lead ultimately to today's Republic of Ireland. Less subtle is an episode towards the end of the novel (and the war) when Stephen meets a Jewish German officer loyally, patriotically rallying troops despite having just seen his own brother killed.

Stephen Wraysford is changed by his experiences in the trenches, and also by his meeting with Isabelle. But which of these has the most profound effect? In his relationship with Isabelle sexual desire won out over lust, and love over obsession; equally the war, by the time it ended had gone beyond defence of his country from an aggressor, or right from wrong, even good from evil. The near present-day narrative passages in the novel help give the reader a long perspective on these dualities. Stephen's descendents, it appears, emerge from them not into new certainties but into paradox, but at least ones that can now be clearly discerned and even perhaps solved.

[ by Conor O'Connor ]
Rambles: 21 October 2001

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