Thursday, September 03, 2009

Book Review: Birdsong

It seems to me that the majority of war movies and war novels that I've encountered have dealt with World War II. I don't know why that is exactly, but I suspect it has to do with a few things: (1) It is seen as the "noble" war because of Hilter and the Nazis; (2) There are so many high-profile things to come out of WWII such as the Holocaust, Pearl Harbor, and Hiroshima/Nagasaki; and (3) Many people have known people who are still alive that fought in the war.

World War I, on the other hand, doesn't seem to get much attention. That is one thing I liked about Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks—it pays the proper homage to the men that fought in the trenches. This book is pretty intense. When Faulks takes his characters through the Battle of Somme in July of 1916, I had to stop reading and take a break. It was just too much for me. Normally I don't have a problem watching or reading about horrible things, but somehow this was different. I think that when you read a work of fiction that deals with a homicidal psychopath, or even hear about something like that on the news, it is not so difficult to take in because, although you know these things happen to actual people, you can assure yourself that it's rare and isolated.

You can't do that when you read about the lives of the soldiers in Birdsong because these experiences were not rare and isolated. A generation of men lived through this hell, and it was hell.

Once more in ragged suicidal lines they trudged toward the pattering death of mounted guns. Bloodied beyond caring, Stephen watched the packets of lives with their memories and loves go spinning and vomiting into the ground. Death had no meaning, but still the numbers of them went on and on and in that new infinity there was still horror.

It feels real because it is real. Great Britain just lost its last WWI veteran about a month ago, and the knowledge that a man who had experienced all of this lived on this earth with me is pretty powerful. I didn't much care for Part I of this book, which involved the pre-war experiences of the main character, Stephen Wraysford, because I felt that it was a pretty run-of-the-mill romance. But I suppose it's necessary to set you up for Stephen's experiences during the war. There are also a few portions set in 1978 with Stephen's granddaughter that I could have done without, but they also just serve to amplify the other portions of the book.

As far as war novels go, this is one of the best I've ever read. This was supposed to be "The War to End All Wars," and I can certainly understand why. How anyone who lived through that could ever want to enter into another war twenty years later is beyond me.

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