Grace Tjan's Reviews > Birdsong: A Novel Of Love And War

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
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Feb 20, 2012

it was ok
bookshelves: 2012, bbc-big-reads, long-ago-and-never-was
Read from February 10 to 20, 2012

I waver between two or three stars for this book. The writing is serviceable, but often terminally pedestrian, and occasionally clumsy (“Stephen lifted searching eyes above the soup spoon as he sucked the liquid over his teeth”). The plotting is similarly ham-fisted, with its tepid “romances”, and unaffecting, though undoubtedly well-researched war scenes (“Stephen watched the men go on madly, stepping over the bodies of their friends, clearing one firebay at a time, jostling one another to be first to traverse. They had dead brothers and friends on their minds; they were galvanized beyond fear. They were killing with pleasure. They were not normal”). It’s as though Faulks had decided that, after dutifully wading through volumes of war correspondences and field reports, he would create certain characters representative of the era and then assign random period characteristics to them. They remain as shallow as a soldier’s hasty grave, and thus their historically accurate gory deaths are devoid of pathos. But the turning point for me was the totally extraneous subplot involving Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter, and the eye-rollingly unbelievable climax of her story. In her late thirties, involved in an unpromising affair with an older married man, Elizabeth develops a sudden interest in her grandfather’s war diaries and discovers facts about her family’s past --- in a particularly slow-witted way:

“Elizabeth did some calculations on a piece of paper, Grand-mere born 1878. Mum born…she was not sure exactly how old her mother was. Between sixty-five and seventy. Me born 1940. Something did not quite add up in her calculations, though it was possibly her arithmetic that was to blame.”

Umm --- my nine-year old knows how old I am. Elizabeth was raised by her mother, Francoise, and is the managing director of her company. There is no indication whatsoever that her mother wants to keep any family history secret. The implication is that they are curiously dull, or so bovinely indifferent, that such basic facts simply never came up in their family life.

Or perhaps, her abject ignorance is a clunky plot device.

Whatever. By this point, I’m plodding through the story like a WW I soldier through waist-high muck. But wait, Elizabeth is also historically challenged:

Francoise: “I was sent to Jeanne from Germany, where I had been living, because my real mother had died. She died of flu.”

Elizabeth: “Of flu? That’s impossible.”

Francoise: “No. There was an epidemic. It killed millions of people in Europe just after the end of the war.”

Er, Elizabeth --- how did you get past high school?

Elizabeth and her married lover proceed to “create an autonomous human life from nothing”, and this is unequivocally portrayed as something gloriously life-affirming. Somehow, Stephen’s wartime heroism inspired her to conquer her impending mid-life/ biological clock crisis by procreating. Screw the wife and kids. They’re obliviously happy. Francoise is non-judgmentally supportive. Stephen’s legacy lives on. The end.

Two stars it is.
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02/19 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Grace Tjan Elizabeth wrote: "It always pains me when characters named Elizabeth are particularly stupid."


Her solution to her crisis is to have a baby with a married man who will never leave his wife and who she doesn't even like anymore. And it was presented as some kind of a triumph of the human spirit. WTF?!

message 2: by Grace (last edited Feb 20, 2012 07:06AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Grace Tjan Elizabeth wrote: "WTF is right. I know more women are choosing to have children on their own. I just don't think it can be "empowering" or whatever if the babydaddy is someone you can't stand. You're tied to that pe..."

I suppose that it's a further proof of her, er, stupidity. In a few years she will forget how old the baby exactly is.

Victor After I read the 'big reveal' of Francoise's biological mother I was left wondering why nobody used the word 'aunt'. Like you I found it implausible that Elizabeth did not already know this about her mother.

Grace Tjan Victor wrote: "After I read the 'big reveal' of Francoise's biological mother I was left wondering why nobody used the word 'aunt'. Like you I found it implausible that Elizabeth did not already know this about h..."

Yes, it was an incredibly dumb (and annoying) plot device. I really don't understand why this book is so highly rated.

NizRite Haha, I know what you mean. When Elizabeth asked her mother 'Aren't you going to ask who the father is?', I like how she said 'Should I? Does it matter?' as if it were some irrelevant little detail. And how she never thought to mention her real mother in all those years until the topic came up in conversation.

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