At the reference desk last week I was approached by a patron who said her book club was tired of reading World War II books and could I find something about World War I? Without hesitation I recommended Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks. She was surprised I had one to suggest so fast but I told her this book was one of my all-time favorites. A bestseller in Britain, Birdsong is not known by enough Americans, so I’m happy to be talking about it now.
I originally read Birdsong back in August of 1997. It was the third selection for my book club, which at that time was still very new. It had been recommended solely on the basis of its cover, which I still find hauntingly beautiful. In Birdsong, Englishman Stephen Wraysford has an intense love affair with Isabelle Azaire while in France on a business trip. She is in an unhappy marriage but their match is doomed from the start. The narrative jumps ahead six years and Stephen is back in France, this time as an officer in the trenches. With death and destruction all around him he is kept alive by thoughts of Isabelle. Isabelle and Stephen do meet again but under entirely different circumstances.
Booklist reviewer Gilbert Taylor appropriately called this “a well-crafted glimpse into gloom,” and it’s definitely a tearjerker, but there is immense payoff as well. The first thing that struck me about Birdsong was Faulks’ literary skill. The descriptions are beautifully done and create vivid images of what the trenches were like during a bombardment. The perfect historical detail of trench warfare is enough to serve as a history lesson. But Faulks is equally at home describing kinder things, like the delicate face of Isabelle. It truly is an exquisite book!
World War II narratives seem to outnumber those of World War I, and for readers curious about the latter, this is a perfect start.