Saturday 1 January 2011

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I'm not entirely sure where my education has let me down but let's just say there is a huge gap in my awareness of the finer points of World War 1, or possibly any points about WWI.  So, I know Germany was there on the wrong side and I know England and America were on the other side.  I know France was the battle ground on which the worst of the battles were fought and I have heard whisperings of the horrors of the Battle of the Somme.  I know the war started with the assassination of some Archduke Ferdinand dude but the details were ever so fuzzy.

The 2nd World War held no such vagueness in my educational history.  I have detailed knowledge of who the bad guys were and who the good guys were.  I know all about the D-Day landings.  I know how it started and how it ended.  I was ashamed of the lack of such clarity around WWI and felt I needed to do something about it.

Let's face it though, me and non-fiction aren't such great friends.  I'll read it if I have to say to learn something about my job or a medical release form but I do find it rather hard going and not enjoyable.  So several friends recommended Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.  Now the trouble with that recommendation is that I had tried reading Human Traces by said author a few years ago and am afraid I couldn't get beyond page 47.  Given such failure I had not embraced any other books by him but given the repetitive nature of this recommendation I decided to give it a go and checked the book out from the library.

I started it just a few days before Christmas after finishing Hotel du Lac, regrettably a nice novel but didn't live up to the hype and my perhaps unreasonably high expectations.  Birdsong starts off like a romance novel.  The first part is before the war and contains some erotic sex scenes that made me feel uncomfortable when I read them in the presence of my children.  I was confused and really unsure what any of this had to do with WWII.

The second part lands you on the battlefield and in no uncertain terms you quickly come to grips with the unspeakable atrocities and conditions of that war.  The reason for the first part of the novel becomes abundantly clear and you desperately yearn to escape.  But there is none.

It was at this point that I decided given that is was 1 am I should really get some sleep and turned off the light.  The images so eloquently drawn though kept haunting me and I found it difficult to find sleep.  At 2:43 am I woke after what I reckon was only 30 minutes of sleep having had a disturbing and frightful nightmare.  Sleep was never going to come.  I picked up the book.  Faulks continues to hammer home the relentlessness of the battle but by 4:56 am I had finished it.  I tried to sleep a few more hours but knowing what I had learned from those pages, my sleep was never the same.  Every muddy trench and tunnel came alive in Faulk's able hands.  I flinched when wires were detonated.

I now know slightly more about how the war started and ended and am now more convinced than ever that I will find out more.  Although some scenes do seem to go on and on and on, I can't complain given that my trauma lasted no more than a few pages compared to the soldier's years and years.  I found the ending as disturbing as the telling.  This war didn't end in 1918 with Armistice Day.  So many veterans never recovered; some lived in homes without ever speaking another word.  An entire generation of men were wiped out.  The technology simply outpaced the tactics.

I highly recommend reading this novel if you haven't already.  I cry every time I tried to tell my husband about it over the last couple days.  Don't expect to be happy about reading it.  That's not the point.  The point is given all that we now know, why are we still fighting wars?

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