When my parents came to visit my sister and I last year, I spent an afternoon at the Imperial War Museum with my father. I could not believe that I’d gone 5 years in London without visiting this museum; I’ve always found the First and Second World War fascinating, the latter even more so after a trip to one of the German concentration camps in 2012. Anyway, the museum has this area where they built a replica of the trenches that became the everday reality of the British troops. Visitors will have the chance to walk through it and try to imagine what life must have been like during those 4 long years of war.
I don’t remember exactly how I felt going through those trenches. I think I may have been too much in a rush to get to the Jewish holocaust memorial in the other floor to really give it serious thought. I never thought about how tragic it must have been for these men, most of them fresh out of university and in an alternate life where peace reigned supreme might have been capable of great things, to have their world reduced so dramatically. I don’t understand war: the terms trench warfare, fronts and lines are terms that I vaguely get.
What I do know is that wars always end up being a senseless waste of life. Its such a great thing to be able to fight for love of your country, but the more I read about The Great War (World War I as it is known in the UK), the more I think that nothing could have been worth the wipeout of men from both sides. Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong drives home the facts of what those men went through, the degradations they subjected themselves to, the experiences that tested the very existence of their humanity.
I don’t know why anyone would classify this book as a love story. I was greatly misled in that sense and in a way, I don’t mind. If this had been another novel of lost love during the war I would have been able to brush it off. But what I really got from reading it was a brutal account of what the men who were there went through. The most touching moments of the novel came not from the main love story but in the stories of friendship and courage among the British soldiers. I was moved by how they tried to achieve normalcy and carry on even though they know that they’ve seen too much to ever lead normal lives again.
The noise of their laughter roared like the sea in his ears. He wanted it louder and louder; he wanted them to drown out the war with their laughter. If they could shout loud enough, they might bring the world back to its senses; they might laugh loud enough to raise the dead.
I think this book isn’t so much about Stephen Wraysford than it is about the horrors of war and how our understanding of what these men have been through is disproportionate to the gratitude that they are owed. I’ve heard the word shellshocked before and I never realised where the term came from but really, Sebastian Faulks painted a really clear picture of the psychological effects of having gone through battle after battle, and how even survivors simply existed rather than lived for a long time afterwards.
Essentially, the theme of the book is that life goes on and you will find a way to carry on. The author also suggests that everyone has a built in survival instinct. At the point in your life where death becomes imminent you will connect with the world and find a reason to live. I think that’s a very beautiful concept. I like Sebastian Faulks’ prose, I find it very lyrical.
The end scene of Stephen Wraysford’s life was beautifully done. I won’t give it away but its reminiscent of the Sainsbury’s Christmas ad in 2015, which still reduces me to a sobbing mess each time I see it. It will reduce war to at its most basic reality: those enemies are fathers, sons, uncles, husbands, lovers, friends…just like you they had dreams, passions, ambitions. It is the war that made monsters of men I think. I find myself thanking God that I live mostly in a peaceful time but do I really? Have any of the wars really ended? I don’t think war will ever truly end until we learn something from each one that’s ever been fought. And we haven’t. Therein lies the reason why novels like these are still so resonant and relevant.
BBC did an adaptation of this novel starring Eddie Redmayne which has now gone on my list of things to watch. Also, a similar book on The Great War was written by Vera Brittain called ‘Testament of Youth’, although this one’s more autobiographical.