Context: Was reading this while I visited the war memorial in Port Moresby. So many who died even after WW2 had officially ended…
Heard a lot about this before and so was keen to see what all the fuss was about. I’m still keen, so if anyone can enlighten me through the comments, I’d be grateful.
Although this is known as a novel about the First World War, it isn’t really. It uses the war as a backdrop to explore themes touching on what life is really all about in terms of relationships, your role, whether what you do really matters, how far following social convention is necessary.
Now these are not new themes, and the backdrop of war is not an original one to cast them against. So, what makes Birdsong stand out, if at all. Well, I feel the primary strength of the novel, what makes it a good one, is the focus on the one character of Stephen Wraysford. You get to see the psychology of an individual as it changes across the range of experiences it goes through. There are great moments where Wraysford is experiencing life’s extremes and you are right there with him. At these points, this book is one you cannot put down.
Even though this is good, there was so much I felt was missed here. No other character, with the possible exception of Weir are developed anywhere near enough, I thought. And the novel loses focus, not gains it, through regular flashforwards to the 1970s where Stephen’s granddaughter is trying to track down his history. This I thought was a complete waste of space. It diluted the impact of what would otherwise have been a great character novel. Elizabeth was a cardboard character that lacked depth when compared to the richness of Wraysford and I was impatient to get back to the front.
If we’d had a novel that had focussed on Wraysford throughout we would have had a classic because there are spates of exceptional writing in there. It’s almost as if Faulks was inspired by his character to bring out the best in him as a novelist while other characters did not give him the depth he needed to discover new veins of form.
I think anyone who has already read Pat Barker’s outstanding Regeneration trilogy will come away from this feeling a little short-changed. Those that haven’t will rate it higher and that’s fine. If you’ve read this and thought it was better than “good” but haven’t read Regeneration, you’re in for an experience.
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