Birdsong

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Young Stephen Wraysford goes to France in 1910 to study manufacturing methods only to run away with Isabelle Azaire, the neglected wife of his host. Discovering herself pregnant and confused about her feelings for Stephen, Isabelle leaves him as well. The increasingly alienated Stephen stays in France and is almost pleased when the war gives him an opportunity to try to focus his confused emotions. The war, however, proves more horrendous than anyone could have imagined, leaving Stephen angrier than before. Hoping to die at times, he miraculously escapes death while all his friends are falling, once even when his body is discarded as a corpse.

Stephen eventually finds some solace with Jeanne Fortmentier, Isabelle’s older sister, only for more emotional confusion to develop. Sixty years later, Elizabeth Benson, his granddaughter, finds herself similarly at a loss until she becomes pregnant by her married lover. Tracking down the truth about Stephen, Isabelle, Jeanne, and the war—with the help of her grandfather’s coded diaries—Elizabeth attempts to find some order within the chaos that is the twentieth century.

Faulks’s depiction of disorder is almost lyrical because of his poetic writing style. His treatment of the overlapping themes of love, sex, alienation, nature, violence, and death recalls the best war fiction, particularly Ernest Hemingway’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS (1929). Like Hemingway, Faulks cannot resist occasional sentimentality, but the strength of his images of war and the passion of his writing style make BIRDSONG a memorable experience.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCII, February 15, 1996, p. 990.

The Guardian. October 19, 1993, p. 13.

Kirkus Reviews. LXIII, December 1, 1995, p. 1652.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 7, 1996, p. 4.

New Statesman and Society. VI, September 17, 1993, p. 40.

The New York Times Book Review. CI, February 11, 1996, p. 11.

The New Yorker. LXXII, April 1, 1996, p. 97.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, December 11, 1996, p. 58.

The Spectator. CCLXXI, September 18, 1993, p. 39.

The Times Educational Supplement. November 5, 1993, p. 12.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 10, 1993, p. 21.

The Washington Post Book World. XXVI, February 18, 1996, p. 3.