When I first finished Birdsong
, I honestly did not know what to say. My thoughts were jumbled and I wanted to wait until I could see the film version on PBS to see if it would offer a different perspective to aid in my reading and interpretation of the book. I will say that as a first impression, some aspects of the novel did not sit well with me and I was particularly interested in seeing how a screenwriter would/could attempt to film these particular sections of Faulks’ novel. After watching the film, my curiosity was left unsatisfied since these sections were omitted for the most part. While I will say that the film does build up some elements that were lacking in the novel, particularly the relationships between various characters, the film does somehow manage to maintain the same dull emotional distance I felt when reading the story.
What surprised me most about this book was the fact that it’s described as a romantic, epic love story. The emotions felt in this story are not what I would consider being akin to love. Or if this is love, it is truly an ugly form: self-abasement and curiosity mixed with selfish, lustful yearnings...duplicitous acts and manipulations. Even our main character Stephen doesn’t know how to characterize his feelings. All Stephen knows is that whatever he felt for Isabelle was the only real feeling he has ever had for another human being; and the war helps him define this feeling as “love.” As for Isabelle—and the same could be said for her sister Jeanne—something else takes precedence over matters of the heart. Both have ulterior motives that drive them towards Stephen, who ultimately seems to become a pawn in their little games. Comparing Birdsong
to the other Faulks novel I have read, The Girl at the Lion d’Or
, Faulks’ portrayal of women is not very flattering.
One of the worst parts of Birdsong
was the characterization of Elizabeth, the protagonist in the 1978-79 sections of this book. I really don’t know what to make of her, she seems to be a mass of contradictions. Ultimately, I thought her obstinately stupid and I honestly found it difficult reading these particular sections of the book. I feel that there is something gravely wrong when a woman is more concerned about soiling new towels when she is about to give birth than about the wellbeing of her newborn child: “‘The towels,’ she sobbed, ‘you’ll stain them.’ He gathered a pile of newspapers from the fireplace and spread them on top.”
I think Faulks wanted this scene to be beautiful and heartfelt—Elizabeth finally gets the child she has always longed for and gets to fulfill a legacy. However, little details like this, almost make this important event an awful farce. It chilled me. Also, I found these sections to be the weakest part of this novel. In some ways, they prevent the reader from finding out what really happens to Stephen at the end...what happened between him and Jeanne...does he really learn the truth...was he forced to be in the position we find him at the end. The summation that is given is not at all satisfactory and leaves the reader with even more questions that are not answered by the novel’s close.
I think perhaps the main reason why this book is so acclaimed is how Faulks describes war. He does succeed in portraying war in minute, graphic detail. He is very precise, down to the way soldiers can destroy each other, evident in Stephen’s interactions with Weir. Yet, the descriptions are at the same time cold and distant. Faulks writes stories like a news correspondent. He reports facts, while maintaining a distance. Even though the reader sees, the reader doesn’t feel it happening. Though I do think that this is how some people do experience a war—not real...can’t believe it’s happening to them...detached. However, these war sections of the novel are not the only sections that read like this. The entire book—the romances and Elizabeth’s personal quest—read the same way. Birdsong
is written with the same monotone, dull voice with no real attempt at differentiation. I just think this is Faulks’ personal style since The Girl at the Lion d’Or
reads the same way.
All said, I was really looking forward to reading this novel, however I was ultimately left disappointed by the story.