Monday, February 02, 2015

the last book I read

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks.

Stephen Wraysford is a bit of a typical English cold fish, but he's been given an ideal opportunity to loosen up and broaden his horizons a bit, as he's been sent on an industrial fact-finding mission to France (Amiens in particular) by his employers at the textile company he works for in England. Not a bad gig for a 20-year-old, as he's being accommodated by the owner of the French textile company, René Azaire, in his own house.

Stephen's loosening-up process extends way beyond learning to quaff red wine at lunchtimes and shrug Gallicly, though, as he's soon (page 57 in my version) getting better acquainted with Mrs. Azaire by going down on her comme une tonne de briques while René is out of the house. The affair gets serious enough for Stephen and Isabelle (aka Mrs. Azaire) to run away to start a new life together, but Isabelle is wracked by guilt and eventually returns to seek forgiveness from René, leaving Stephen bereft. She also neglects to inform him that, after many years of failed attempts to conceive with René, she is pregnant.

That initial scene-setting action takes place in 1910, so you can probably guess roughly what's going to happen next. Sure enough, we leap forward to 1916 and the horrific realities of trench warfare: shrapnel, gas gangrene, people's faces getting blown off and landing on your shoes, that sort of thing. Stephen is now an army officer commanding a trench-full of men, including some whose job is to tunnel into the face of the trench towards the enemy - a horrendously dangerous undertaking, to be sure, what with the constant danger of the whole thing falling in on your head, in addition to the possibility of the enemy tunneling under you and blowing you up. Nonetheless in strict percentage terms it's still probably a better bet than climbing out and going over the top. Just to prove the point, Stephen's company are required to take part in the barely-believable slaughter of the Battle of the Somme, which Stephen somehow manages to survive despite going over the top and seeing most of his men blown into tiny fragments around him.

During brief periods of leave from the relentless bombardment and dismemberment at the Somme and, later, at the Battle of Messines (or the "Battle of Messiness" as I would have called it if I'd been there, hahaha), Stephen makes a nostalgic return to Amiens and has a chance meeting with Jeanne, Isabelle's sister. Jeanne is initially reluctant to divulge any information, but eventually relents and tells him that Isabelle is alive and shortly to leave town to be with her German fiancé, Max, but would like to see Stephen before she leaves. When Stephen and Isabelle meet (chaperoned by Jeanne) it is revealed that Isabelle has been quite severely injured in a shell blast and has suffered injuries and scarring to her arm and face. Stephen and Isabelle part on affectionate terms, although she does once again forget to mention the pregnancy and subsequent birth of their child, now about five years old. Well, it's easy for things to slip your mind.

So far, so linear. But come on, this is a work of 1990s literary fiction, so bring on the fractured timeline shit already. Wait, here it is: interwoven with all the World War I stuff is a jump forward to 1978, where Stephen's grand-daughter Elizabeth Benson is doing a bit of research into her grandfather's old diaries, while simultaneously running her own clothing company and also conducting a clandestine affair with a bloke called Robert who works in Europe and makes regular unfulfilled promises to leave his wife during his brief trysts with Elizabeth. Elizabeth has come across some of Stephen's old diaries and starts to decode them, with the help of the husband of a colleague who has some code-breaking expertise. As she reads Elizabeth starts to gradually take more of an interest in the project, to the extent of making a trip to France (with the added ulterior motive of dropping in on Robert for a quick bunk-up) to look at the battlefield and the Thiepval Memorial.

We return to France for Stephen's final wartime moments, and it looks as if his luck has finally run out as he is trapped underground after a German mine explodes and collapses the tunnels behind him. With the help of Jack Firebrace, one of the British tunnelers, he manages to unearth a cache of explosives and rig it up to blow a hole in the earth above them. Obviously the problem with this is that it's as likely to bury them as it is to free them, but they've got no other options. Sure enough Stephen and Jack are buried, but some German soldiers from a nearby trench dig them out - too late for Jack, but Stephen survives, and without having to engage in any hand-to-hand combat with any Germans, as the war is pretty much over and no-one wants to fight any more.

Back in the "present", Elizabeth has discovered that she is pregnant with Robert's child, and, slightly irrationally, decides that the two of them should slope off to a nice cottage in the middle of nowhere for the last week or so before the due date. Needless to say the inevitable happens, and Robert finds himself doing the old hot-water-and-towels routine while he waits for the local doctor to arrive. By the time the doctor turns up Elizabeth has popped out a healthy baby boy, which she names John after Jack Firebrace's dead son in accordance with Stephen's promise while the two of them were entombed.

My Vintage Future Classics edition of Birdsong has - in addition to some rather bossy "reading notes" at the end - an introduction by the author in which he reveals that the book was written at what sounds like breakneck speed between June 1992 and January 1993. He admits to the speed of composition resulting in a few loose ends, and there are a couple which just grate slightly: the appearance of Stuart as a possible suitor for Elizabeth and rival to Robert is presented as building up to something important, and indeed he ends up proposing to her, in a roundabout sort of way. Once he's left Elizabeth thinking about it and sloped off into the night, we never hear from him again, though, nor is he or his proposal even mentioned, which is a bit odd. The other more glaring omission is any explanation for Stephen's slightly odd phobia about birds. Since it's relevant to a couple of key passages in the book, and was important enough to be alluded to in the book's title, for goodness' sake, it might have been nice to have had some insight into what was going on.

These are minor quibbles about a book I enjoyed greatly, far more than I was expecting to in fact. The grim realities of trench warfare aren't perhaps the most promising raw ingredients for entertainment, but the accounts of the grinding tedium mixed with occasional unimaginable horror and (in the moments before going over the top to attack) the opportunity to contemplate your own almost certain painful death are riveting. It's clearly a struggle not to have the sections featuring Elizabeth seem a bit drab in comparison, and the framing device teeters on the edge of being a drag on the plot rather than augmenting it, but it just about works, even though all the new life/new beginnings stuff at the end is laying the symbolism on a bit thick. I'd have been sure to mention these concerns to Sebastian Faulks when I met him, but unfortunately he hadn't yet written Birdsong at the time, so I couldn't.

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