A few years ago I was offered a free ticket to see the stage show of Birdsong so (because I never turn down a free theatre ticket) I went along with absolutely no idea what I was letting myself in for. What it turned out to be was an utter sob-fest set in World War I. So it was with some trepidation that I approached the book which I expected to be even worse.
Birdsong tells the story of Stephen Wraysford who first arrives in France in 1910 as a young man of 20 to learn about the textile industry in the northern city of Amiens. The first section of the book deals with Stephen’s time with the Azaire family and the passionate love affair he embarks on under their roof which will mark him for the rest of his life.
We then skip to 1916 and a trench on the Belgian border where we meet Stephen again as a Captain in the British army. The introduction to wartime is as brutal as it can be with three characters dying in the first few pages of the 1916 section and little respite from then on. Every page bristles with the possibility of death or serious injury yet despite this it wasn’t the tear-jerker I was expecting. By this point death has become a fact of life for Stephen and all the other men and it is relayed as such in the text. It was a very grim read, there no doubt about that and there are some very gory descriptions making it definitely not a book for the faint-hearted but it only drew a tear from me on a couple of occasions (and that’s saying a lot, I’m the kind of person who cries at the drop of a hat).
I imagine that the war was a very surreal experience for those whose lives were consumed by it and that unreality is conveyed very clearly in the text, they shift dramatically between front-line warfare and rest days in some of the towns further from the line but there is a sense of abstractness that lies over everything. One of the most surreal moments was Weir’s story of his visit home and his parents’ complete disinterest in everything he had seen, experienced and felt which made it one of the parts that really moved me.
Then, about halfway through we shift completely to London in 1979 and some seemingly unrelated woman on the tube. It emerges gradually that she is looking into her family’s connection to WWI and I imagine that this part of the story was brought in as a way to tell what happened after the end of the war and to tie up the more romantic elements of the book but I felt it was completely unnecessary. I didn’t care about Elizabeth, about her relationships or any part of her life and I feel that all she did was detract from the central story. I was particularly annoyed that after the dramatic and moving conclusion to the book’s front-line events we were returned to Elizabeth which really spoilt the ending for me.
But that remains my only complaint, all in all Birdsong has left me with an urge to find out more about the terrible events of WWI. I feel like I know a reasonable amount about WWII but I only have a very vague grasp on the facts of The Great War which is awful given how many men and women gave their lives during the conflict. Today we are 100 years on from the horror of the trenches but we must never forget.