Last June’s book selection meeting included my nomination of BIRDSONG to honour the centennial of WWI and on Monday, with Christmas lights twinkling in the background, the book club gals settled in for a discussion of war. (You can see all our selections here.)
We always start with a general question – did you like the book? This is not intended to solicit a lengthy response but more of a thumbs up or thumbs down kind of reaction. To my delight, the group gave Sebastian Faulks’s highly regarded novel a resounding thumbs up. They loved it and were blown away by Faulks’s powerful descriptions of battle as well as the underground world of sappers.
We’re a fairly structured group, having learned over the years what it takes to prompt an interesting evening, and since I was leading the discussion, I had a number of other questions prepared as well as some information about the author.
At the age of fourteen, Sebastian Faulks made up his mind to become a writer. After university he had a series of jobs – running a book club, freelance book reviewer, feature writer, literary editor – but it wasn’t until the success of Birdsong that he could “focus his energies on books”. In describing his writing, Faulks says “he has this tremendous greed for the experience of the near past” and that his mission in writing about the world wars is “to articulate the horror which, for so many, was literally and devastatingly incommunicable.”
Why should we, in 2014, care about WWI, I asked. This question elicited immediate responses concerning its relevance to understanding the wars that are going on today, particularly in times like ours where conflicts are more local and have not required the enlistment of vast numbers of our population.
The group went on to talk about Faulks’s central theme – what are the limits of humanity – and his conclusion that there are no limits. Soldiers will endure a shocking degree of degradation and inhumanity spurred on by even the faintest glimmer of hope and the love they feel for their comrades.
We agonized over why governments and citizens at large permitted such wholesale slaughter as that which occurred at places like the Somme, and expressed shock at the commanders who sent their men into battle knowing the hopeless (suicidal?) conditions they faced. We discussed the weaponry of today compared with that of the early 20th century.
Talking about the main character, Stephen Wraysford, prompted comments about how his childhood and the devastating love affair with Isabelle had affected the man he became in conditions of war.
On the topic of style, the group agreed that Faulks’s more sparing style with few adjectives and lots of action verbs made the story flow in a compelling fashion. A few found the level of detail concerning tunnelling operations somewhat tedious or confusing. On the topic of the more modern section of the story – the one that occurs in 1978 and 1979 – most of the group felt Elizabeth’s story was unnecessary and too contrived. In contrast, Part I, which occurs in 1910, was deemed essential to appreciating Wraysford’s character development and his ultimate drive to survive.
A resounding endorsement for this powerful novel. Birdsong is a profound story that touched us all.
M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available in paperback from Amazon and in e-book formats from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.