“No child or future generation will ever know what this was like. They will never understand. When it is over we will go quietly among the living and we will not tell them. We will talk and sleep and go about our business like human beings. We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us.”
Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks’ most successful novel, is a harrowing account of the trials and tribulations of the young men fighting not only the supposed enemy, but their own destroyed psychological system.
A country in which the young Englishman Stephen Wraysford will now sacrifice his youth in exchange for a lifetime of terror and corruption. Where young men age prematurely and are brutally disfigured, for the moral gain of their leaders.
A country torn by war, only the beginning of the loss of an entire generation.
We follow Wraysford, from his initial arrival in France to analyse the textiles industry, to his intimate love affair with his guardian René Azaire’s wife, Isabelle, and finally, his hellish experience at the front.
A young man, Stephen is innocent, and upon arrival at the Azaire mansion, is entranced by the beauty of Isabelle. She at first attempts to ignore her mutual feelings towards him, but this fails.
The pair develop an intense passion for one another, and commit adulterous acts behind René’s back. Stephen, confident that Isabelle loves him, is unfazed by the potential for the husband’s revenge.
Upon his discovery of the affair, the leader of the Azaire household demands they leave his home, bellowing that Stephen will go to hell for his acts. This comment barely affects Stephen in his current state, but becomes a gross understatement of the horrors the boy is sure to face in a short while.
Wraysford, who has matured dramatically, can be found on the battlefields along the Western Front, where he has advanced to the status of Captain.
Throughout this time, he has endured some of the bloodiest events in the conflict, from slaughtering German soldiers to rescuing the decapitated corpses of his former comrades. He mentions his progression from a young boy, to an old man in an adolescent’s body.
The highlights of this tragic novel are never-ending. There are multiple points where, as a reader, one will have to put the book down to cry in sorrow at the dreadful experiences of so many young men.
But the scene which really tugs at the heartstrings is that of Stephen’s comrade, Brennan. A young Irish man, who seems to suffer the utmost devastation of the war.
Brennan is unable to locate his brother upon his return from No Man’s Land, and his frenzied attempts to find something that remains only demonstrates the fragility of his mind at this point.
Stephen watches as his fellow soldier locates the body of his younger brother, unable to comprehend the emotions which course through his veins. He listens as Brennan does not cry, but softly sings Irish songs to the headless corpse, his mind numbed to the point of no return.
Birdsong is, overall, a poignant and emotional novel, and Faulks’ intricate use of both symbolism and characterisation portrays the psychological degradation imposed upon soldiers from all countries involved in the bloodiest, most devastating conflict in history – the First World War.