Catie's Reviews > Birdsong

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks
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really liked it
bookshelves: historical, read-in-2011
Recommended to Catie by: Jo

I generally shy away from reading or watching stories about war. Not because they don’t interest me, but because they’re just too horrific for me to deal with most of the time. Zombies, ghosts, vampires, demons – bring em’ on! I’ve got nerves of steel. But young men and women, meeting across battlefields to slaughter each other by the thousands? That’s where the real horror lies. How could my own species be so coldly violent? So utterly nonchalant about the wholesale murder of children? So sadistically creative in our methods? And worse – I feel like many books and films tend to glorify this horror.

But this book never ever does that. This is one of the most exposed, gruesome, and honest portrayals of warfare that I’ve ever experienced. Nothing is left out – the filth, the lice, the claustrophobic trenches, the madness, the isolation, the lies. Faulks doesn’t spare the reader from any atrocity. Every horror is described with frank, almost clinical prose. He doesn’t exaggerate or rely on melodrama, and that almost makes everything worse. His lack of emotion penetrated my defenses more than dramatics ever could.

This story is broken up over three different time periods. In the first, Stephen Wraysford is a young and passionate Englishman who is in France on business. There, he falls in love and begins an affair with a married woman. In the second time period, Stephen is a much sobered and aged leader of a platoon of infantrymen in the First World War. In the third, a middle aged woman in the 1970’s seeks information about her ancestors.

The portions of the story that take place during World War One are extraordinary. Faulks perfectly captures the conditions and mindset of the soldiers. He breathes such isolation into his characters – as each little bit of humanity is snuffed out and hardened, they become further disconnected from their former lives. And yet, there are the little inconvenient shreds of compassion, decency, and innocence that tend to reassert themselves with each new trauma. And there’s something else that happens in the trenches – a brotherhood of fellow survivors. These men, so completely separated from the rest of humanity, manage to find some kind of closeness with each other – the only people alive who could possibly understand.

So why didn’t I give this book five stars? Well, I simply didn’t enjoy the other segments even half as much as the parts during World War One. The romance is cheesy (although, ends on a note made me enjoy it a bit more in hindsight). The portions in the 70’s are slow and a bit boring. Where Faulks’ prose works so well with horrific warfare, it renders the day to day with too much simplicity and dullness. I also didn’t find much to relate to with any of the female characters, who all feel one-dimensional.

However, this book is very much worth reading. If you are looking for a vivid and uncompromising portrayal of trench warfare, you can do no better.

Perfect Musical Pairing

When They Asked Us

This is one of the many “trench songs” from the English soldiers in WW1.

And when they asked us,
How dangerous it was.
Oh! We'll never tell them,
No, we'll never tell them.

The lyrics, for me, speak to the complete separation of an entire generation of young men from their families. It is impossible to describe years of sustained horror and trauma, and I think that this is a darkly humorous nod to that impossibility.
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Reading Progress

October 22, 2011 – Shelved
October 24, 2011 – Started Reading
October 24, 2011 – Shelved as: historical
October 24, 2011 – Shelved as: read-in-2011
October 27, 2011 –
page 207
October 29, 2011 –
page 275
68.41% ""The random violence of the world ran supreme; there was no point in trying to find an explanation.""
October 29, 2011 –
page 350
October 29, 2011 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-45 of 45 (45 new)

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message 1: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo After TBA? :)

Catie Sounds good!

message 3: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo I have my notebook by the way full of notes for TBA and I'm going to write you an e-mail.... NOW.

Catie I have all kinds of theories now. It's hard to stop reading it.

Jasprit I remember reading this book TWICE! for my english lit A-levels, hope you guys enjoy it :)

message 6: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo Haha, I've read it twice already Jasprit! I fancied a reread though.
It's one of my favourites :)

Jasprit Whoops! I know it was awesome, it was the only book I actually liked from our reading list! :)

Catie I've never read it! I don't think that it's as well known over here. I'm really looking forward to it though. Jo, I can pick it up from the library today or tomorrow.

message 9: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo That's fine :)
I've got approximately A MILLION other books that will keep me out of mischief!

message 10: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo OK.. you're probably miles in front of me but I'm planning on spending the night with Mr Wraysford.
I think I'm up to the 'stunningly erotic' bit.
I'm probably going to skip it and/or rip out the pages and burn them.

Catie Actually, that's exactly where I am!

I got to the *ahem* part and then decided that I needed to take a break. But I will be reading more this afternoon!

message 12: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo I'll let you off if you feel you can't bear the smut.

Honestly, such filth.

Catie Hahaha.

Honestly, if any dark haired, 20 year old Englishmen want to show up at my house, I'll be happy to act repressed and mysterious. If only someone would spend time with me...I am so terribly innocent and naive...*bats eyelashes*

message 14: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo Ohh, I kind of love Isabelle.

But the good thing is if you're all 'Ugh whatever' about soft skin and "impalement" then it doesn't last long :)

Are you enjoying it so far?

Catie I kind of hate Isabelle. But sometimes it's hard for me to divorce my modern woman's attitudes from my reading. I know that it was a different time and that she was under different constraints.

But yes, I am enjoying it.

message 16: by Jo (last edited Oct 25, 2011 09:57AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo I'd rather be friends with Isabelle than Madame Berard. That bit where Berard starts singing.. so awkward.

It only gets better in my humble opinion.

I was 17 when I first read this and I was terribly bored with the beginning, but then the rest of it blew my mind. I'm not minding it as much this time round though.

Catie Haha, he's such a boor. You're right; she's worse. She worships the ground that that boorish a-hole walks on.

I guess I just relate to Isabelle a bit because she's my age. I feel like the way that she's portrayed seems a little bit too child-like for someone who's 29. And the puppy love that Stephen feels for her seems authentically passionate and foolhardy, but that doesn't make me enjoy reading about it any more. I guess I just want to tell Isabelle that she doesn't need some twenty year old boy to awaken her. Free thyself, woman!

message 18: by Jo (last edited Oct 25, 2011 10:07AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo I know what you mean.
She's been married and a mum (technically) for 6 years... but the guy she's married to is hardly a bring of the swoon is he?
Maybe she would be happy to have your advice and would listen to it and agree with you 100% and run off and realise her dream of running a vineyard .... but until then...

Twenty year old boy will do nicely.

Catie :)

I am happy viewing Stephen as a means to an end.

Something tells me this isn't going to end with Isabelle running her own vineyard though.

message 20: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars


There's this thing, I'm not sure whether you've heard of it or not.... called WW1 that kind of scuppers those plans.

Catie What???

THAT's what your Armistice day readings are about?


message 22: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo I know, it's mental.

LOL, my dad just saw me reading this and he said 'I hope you're skipping the rude part' and then we chortled.
Also... he informs me that on the numerous times that I've been to France on my jollies, we drove down the banks of the Ancre(where they're going fishing).
And I've visited the Somme multiple times.

message 23: by Catie (last edited Oct 25, 2011 10:35AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Catie Hahaha, I love your dad.

You're so lucky to live where you can just go to France and it's not a big deal.

I really loved that scene in the boat...when they're all hot and frustrated. I felt like I was there.

Isabelle has just had a "circulation problem," which prompted about twelve rude jokes in my head, and now she's telling Stephen all about Azaire's eccentricities in the boudoir. Bring on WWI!

Oh, also...she apparently has lighting reflexes in the heat of the moment. LOL. I'll probably be chuckling about that scene for the rest of the day.

message 24: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo It does get a bit ridiculous, doesn't it?
You've probably already guessed this but their um... conclusion.. I think you'll like it. It has 'Catie Approves' stamped all over it.

Catie Yeah, I didn't expect it to end well. :(

This part cracks me up, "Her emotional and physical appetites were awakened but then left suspended as her husband turned his energy toward a long, unnecessary battle with his own shortcomings."

Isn't it amazing how women used to be viewed?

message 26: by Jo (last edited Oct 25, 2011 11:14AM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo I know! It's scary to think it was only 100 years ago.

Catie And I just realized that this was published in 1993!

message 28: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo So when I said I love Isabelle, I mean that I think she's a good character... extremely flawed but an interesting one for the story.
But when I say I love Stephen. I mean I really really love him.
He's such a brilliant character.. I've never forgotten about him.

I'm at the end of Part One by the way. Want me to wait up?

Catie Um, no. I am only about ten pages behind you. Go ahead! I am writing a review right now, but I'll keep going with it tonight after you're sleeping.

I can't wait to get to know Stephen better!

message 30: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo You get to meet Jack soon, too :-D

message 31: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo Oh, I'm so glad you liked this Catie. I'm currently back with Stephen in the trenches for the last time.
I have my tissues ready... the only problem about re-reading this book is that I know what's coming.
(view spoiler)

Catie (view spoiler)

message 33: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo (view spoiler)


message 34: by Jo (last edited Oct 29, 2011 05:55PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo Where Faulks’ prose works so well with horrific warfare, it renders the day to day with too much simplicity and dullness.

Iiiinteresting. Do you think that the simplicity and dullness of day to day could be intentional because it offers a stark contrast to the horrors that the men experienced in the trenches? I think there is a definite feeling of disjointedness and the fact that, even when they're home and surrounded by the things that should be familiar, they still feel like they can't return to normality because of what they've seen and been through.
Everything just seems out of focus.

But (view spoiler)

Anyway, beautiful review Catie. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one. I agree with your thoughts on the romance... I think this book would have been even better if he had not left it out as such but maybe shortened it. It didn't need to be that long.

How did you feel about (view spoiler)

Catie Oh yes, I definitely agree about the contrast of the "leave" periods and the battlefield. I was actually referring to Elizabeth's portions when I wrote that. I'll admit that I felt bored during her parts.

(view spoiler)

message 36: by Jo (last edited Oct 29, 2011 06:21PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo (view spoiler)
I'd make a spiffing troll. ;)

Catie (view spoiler)

message 38: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars


(view spoiler)

Aly (Fantasy4eva) Wonderful review. Thanks for letting us know about the not so fun bits. Helps me to have an idea beforehand :)

Catie Yes, I definitely definitely see why you love Stephen. One of my most favorite parts is Stephen underground,

"No one has ever loved me. That's the truth of it, though I wasn't aware of it then. I wasn't like you with your mother. No one cared where I was or whether I should live or die. That's why I made my own reasons for living, that's why I will escape from here, somehow, because no one else has ever cared. If I have to I will chew my way out like a rat."

message 41: by Jo (new) - rated it 5 stars

Jo I wish there was a way to 'like' comments.


Catie He's so damaged and disconnected and bitter.

And I love him for it.

Catie Thanks Aly! Sorry I almost missed you in the frenzy of Stephen adoration. I agree with Jo - you should give this one another try.

message 44: by Flannery (new) - added it

Flannery I laughed a bit at your first paragraph because it reminded me of that part of the movie Role Models where they are all at the campfire telling ghost stories and they coax Paul Rudd into telling one. So he gets ready to go and then says, "Okay, I've got a really good horror story, and it's particularly terrifying because it's true. In countries all over the world, including our own, children, many of them just like you, are abducted and sold into the world of underground sex trafficking." I know how horrible it is that it is true but it cracks me up--that whole movie does. (this is such a tangent, sorry. I just thought of it because of your wanting-to-read-about-fiction-instead-of-historic-sad-times comment)

Catie Hahaha, I remember that! That movie was pretty good...and then totally odd in places. But I love the role-playing battle at the end. Thanks for the laugh this morning, Flannery :)

P.S. You should have something waiting for you when you get home :D

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