Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

American Paperback

Near the end of Sebastian Faulks’ World War I novel Birdsong, the stoic, lonely protagonist Stephen Wraysford comes face to face with a German soldier who has pulled him from the depths of a collapsed tunnel, saving his life. At the sight of the German uniform, Stephen instinctively reaches for his revolver, which isn’t there. He then aggressively raises fighting fists. And then: “Far beyond thought, the resolution came to him and he found his arms, still raised, begin to spread open.”  The German soldier in turn sees “this wild-eyed figure, half-demented” and without knowing why “found that he had opened his own arms in turn, and the two men fell upon each other’s shoulders, weeping at the bitter strangeness of their human lives.”

It’s a stunning event on page 483 out of a total of 503 pages in my paperback edition. For three years in this fictional masterpiece, Stephen has fought on the front lines in France with the German enemy, and I had long been with him in all the pages before through the Battle of the Somme and the Battle at Messines Ridge. Thinking surely they would shoot one another, their reaction caught my breath.

Birdsong is Faulks’ fourth novel that became hugely popular in the UK, when it was published in 1993, and thereafter in the US. In other words, it’s not a new book but among past-published books offering a gold mine of good reading. Sometimes a good book for a beach bag is an old book. This one certainly is a top candidate.

Birdsong_Sebastian Faulks

British Paperback

While the compelling central drama of this epic story is the horrific trench warfare in Northern France, the book begins in 1910, when Stephen arrives in a small French town to observe the manufacturing practices of a textile factory. He falls in love with the owner’s wife, Isabelle, and what follows is a torrid love affair, with erotic scenes perfectly tuned to the characters’ passion. Six years later, Stephen is a lieutenant in the British infantry, boldly leading men into enemy fire and watching them die in the inhuman devastation of the crushing battles. He’s a survivor, and his men see him as a lucky charm. His cold yet not dispassionate eye to the carnage allows him to live with the ongoing senseless killing and keep moving through his days without burden of despair.

His affair with Isabelle is long over, and yet 1978 to 1979, in parts three, five and seven of the story, Stephen’s 38-year-old grand-daughter, Elizabeth Benson, born of Isabelle, reads Stephen’s diaries found in her mother’s attic. She also visits the battlefields in Northern France. While some of Elizabeth’s queries about her grandfather feel a bit over-excited, this part of the narrative gives a meaningful look-back from a generation that’s clueless about their World War I ancestors. To be so involved in reading about Stephen’s war and then catapulted ahead to a time when people can’t possibly understand it creates an eerie feeling in the narrative flow.

Faulks writes with focused, realistic detail. For some, the war scenes might be too much. The Battle of the Somme is described in history books as one of the bloodiest military battles ever fought. Indeed, the Brits and French charged toward the Germans across No Man’s Land falsely believing their enemy had been successfully shelled into vulnerability. But this war story comes across neither as too violent nor gruesome. It’s more forthright and sincere.

One hundred or so pages before the scene of Stephen’s rescue from the tunnel, Stephen takes a short leave home to England. When he’s alone outside in the fields of a countryside untouched by war — where there are standing trees and a silent sky — he’s overwhelmed with a presence of love and forgiveness that he senses in the created world: “…nothing was immoral or beyond redemption, all could be brought together, understood in the long perspective of forgiveness.” This spiritual connection deeply changes him. It is a small but mighty thread that’s tightly woven with many other threads in the tapestry of his daily life that lead to Stephen letting go of his fists and opening his arms, as the war comes to an end in this profound epic.

 

Two excellent novels

December 4, 2013

If you’re looking for storytelling that will involve you with character complexities, intriguing plots and memorable settings, you’ll find all that here, and more.

Burial Rites by Hannah KentBurial Rites by Hannah Kent

Agnes Magnúsdóttir was a young woman when she became the last person to be executed (publicly beheaded) in Iceland in the early nineteenth century, condemned for murdering Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson. She’s given over in protective custody to a farm family of a government official for the months preceding her execution. Agnes’s presence on the farm creates strife and challenge for the parents and two girls who must come to terms with the convict’s sympathetic humanity.

The isolated northern Icelandic landscape invites us into its gorgeous beauty and treacherous reality. The how and why details of the murders unfold as Agnes reveals her story to a visiting novice priest who struggles with knowing how to provide spiritual comfort and hope to a murderess. So, too, we learn of her impoverished life as a landless workmaid leading up to the crime.

The story interchanges between Agnes’s intimate first person inner thoughts and confessions to the priest, and then the objective tension-building third person view of the other characters. Hannah Kent writes with compassionate authority, deeply engaging us in the soul of human love and crime. In the Author’s Note at book’s end, she tells us she has knit together Agnes’s story in Burial Rites based on known and established facts, stating “events have either been drawn directly from the record, or are the result of speculation; they are fictional likelihoods.” This stunning novel entreats insight into how certainty leaves no entry point for the light of truth.

The First of July by Elizabeth SpellerThe First of July by Elizabeth Speller

The title of this novel that drove me to read late into the night comes from the first day of the First World War’s Battle of the Somme. “Once the shelling was over, of the 100,000 British troops who attacked the German lines July 1, 1916, 20,000 were killed and over 40,000 were wounded. It was the single worst day in deaths and casualties in British military history.” (source: PBS.org)

The story begins earlier, in 1913, with the lives of four young men that will be changed by the war and, specifically, the battle – a time when we are introduced to their normal lives as a London store clerk fascinated by bicycles (Frank); a cathedral organist in Gloucester (Benedict); a British entrepreneur in New York City (Harry); and a village boy assisting the local blacksmith and doctor in Corbie, France (Jean-Baptiste).

Chapters are dedicated to each character as the story unfolds. In the beginning, I questioned whether or not I’d be able to remember all their life threads and signature details; however, that concern disappeared quickly – author Elizabeth Speller lures us into caring about each character’s decisions, motives, needs and fate with realism, surprise and emotional gravitas. They are the reason I kept turning the pages, wanting to know their outcomes.

Frank enters the war as a military bicycle messenger; Benedict joins up with his friend Theo, whom he secretly, romantically loves; Harry leaves the safety of America to join his fellow countrymen in battle in the midst of his father’s death and a major inheritance; and Jean-Baptiste joins the army to run from his mother’s shocking affair with the doctor. Speller magically connects the four lives in a way that’s moving and unforgettable as she explores their need for freedom, self-direction, hope, love and life purpose.

As we head into the 100 year anniversary of World War I in 2014, The First of July — captivating in storytelling and elegant in style — deserves a place at the top of the reading list. For this year, 2013, it’s among my year’s favorites.

German novelist Erich Maria Remarque (1898-1970) published All Quiet on the Western Front in 1929. He went on to publish several other novels, but the first remains his hallmark. It’s not just a classic war novel, but frequently categorized and hailed as the greatest war novel of all time.

In brief, the story is about German soldier Paul Baumer, the narrator, who responsibly joins the German army with high-school classmates, only to discover it’s a grotesque and senseless horror show. His innocence doesn’t simply vanish in the trench warfare, hand-to-hand fighting and poison gas.  It’s ripped away, and he’s fully aware of the loss.

Paul’s piercing recognitions and reflections moved me. I read them and reread them.  I read them out loud. One time it was the scene where Paul, standing sentry, dangerously allows himself to think about the good times of his youth, times now unreachable for all that he and his friends have been through in the war. He despairs the harsh change: “We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial – I believe we are lost.”

Another passage I kept returning to was when Paul guards Russian prisoners of war.  He recognizes they are enemies, but only in so far as those who declared the war in the first place deemed them enemies: “But who can draw such a distinction when he looks at these quiet men with their childlike faces and apostles’ beards. Any non-commissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, than they are to us.”

All Quiet on the Western Front typically appears on bookstore tables set up to cater to students’ summer reading assignments. I was in the store, shopping for Pat Barker’s award-winning First World War Regeneration trilogy. I changed my mind, though, and picked up Remarque’s classic, thinking, “Ah, this one first!” 

Eventually I will get to Barker’s trilogy, and when I do, Paul’s fictional journey will inform it or any other WWI story  by virtue of Remarque’s bruising emotional realism. By the way, on a whim, I Googled “the greatest war novel of all time” and got an Amazon list of 25 novels ranging from Keneally’s WWII Schindler’s List to Orwell’s Russian Revolution Animal Farm. I wouldn’t rely on an online bookseller to be an authority for such a list, but it’s a curious combination to ponder.

Update: Image changed 1.10.12.

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