Why have birds and sing yourself?


(This review appeared in the ReadReverb newsletter, Jan 20, 2006, and on the ReadReverb website)

Putting together a book about the Great War, for a half-decent writer, is easy money. The material speaks for itself. Almost every single soldier's story contains enough joy, misery, fear, horror, excitement and feelgood spirit to be more than worth reciting. With authorial interference no greater than that of the proofreader or editor (and careful sequencing to highlight the irony of a modernist society, so willing to accept its own belief in ever-improving quality of life, which found itself facing such a horror) one can tug any reader gently from one end of a book of such stories to the other.

In this spirit it seems almost pointless to mention the plot of Birdsong. Taciturn, laconic Captain Stephen Wraysford struggles through battles backlit by a tragic love affair that occurred around the same geographical region, while men get their heads shot off or drag the cheese-decayed bodies of their dead brothers out of no man's land to give them a decent burial. Indeed, where Birdsong abandons all pretence of book-length structure, and lets itself be yet another collection of war yarns, it works tremendously well. To be fair to the love story of the protagonist, when left to its own emotional devices, it too has equal power to stir the reader to tears and smiles. By comparison, the contemporary love story that attempts to parallel Wraysford's experiences and give structure to the history that unfolds throughout the book is not at all engaging, and can be completely discarded without affecting the rest.

But where Faulks contributes what feels like his own content to this body of myth, he comes utterly unstuck. The limit of Faulks' power to intellectualize seems to be circumscribed by such banal received ideas as a church being nothing but a giant "memento mori", and Wraysford feeling a mixture of---gosh!---condescension and envy at the faith that supports the congregation. At these times it's almost as though the Tommies would prefer for Faulks to keep the hell out of it, and instead be a conduit for the stories which they can tell perfectly well (just as they used Erich Maria Remarque or Timothy Findley, both incidentally far more talented writers than Faulks). Every time Faulks chips in with his own observations, you can't help feel that he should've aired them some modern-day newspaper column, instead of managing to foul the already dirty, fecund air of '14--'18 Amiens. An enjoyable, readable book, though; no thanks to its author.