Tuesday, 15 September 2009

'Birdsong' by Sebastian Faulks

The title ‘Birdsong’ is and echo in my mind of a Siegfried Sassoon poem. It holds out some ultimate hope from the horror of the First World War. The book forms an interesting comparison with ‘Regeneration’ on which I have commented previously. It is invidious to judge one better than the other; both contribute to our increasingly rich literature of war.

The descriptions of the Somme and the tunnelling are framed by a romantic / erotic adulterous episode before the war, and by a female descendant who investigates her grandfather’s history and has an adulterous romance of her own. The hope is in continuity and life continuing, despite the constrictions of society.

The ultimate constrictions of society are to be involved in war, hemmed in by duty, patriotism, military law and an iron necessity to survive by killing. The particularly interesting aspect of the book for me is the extensive exploration and descriptions of the tunnelling activity to set mines below the enemy’s positions. The First World War was particularly static on the Western front, and hence both sides engaged in ever more extensive tunnelling activity. The claustrophobia, darkness, danger and airlessness of the tunnels is vividly conveyed. One of the climaxes of the book involves being buried alive in a collapsed tunnel.

One of the memorable and attractive aspects of the book is the wide range of scenes and atmospheres. We swing from the dreamlike idyll of a boat trip on the Somme river with the protagonist’s lover before the war to the mass slaughter in the mud in the very same location some 15 year’s later. The book has an epic quality, finding the space, with narrative skill, to revolve around several times. The pre-war lover re-appears. The protagonist almost literally come back from the dead more than once. The modern granddaughter echoes the same passions and mistakes of her predecessors.

I would strongly recommend this book, principally on the strength of its vivid descriptions and emotionally strong atmosphere.

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