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Published to international critical and popular acclaim, this intensely romantic yet stunningly realistic novel spans three generations and the unimaginable gulf between the First World War and the present. As the young Englishman Stephen Wraysford passes through a tempestuous love affair with Isabelle Azaire in France and enters the dark, surreal world beneath the trenches of No Man's Land, Sebastian Faulks creates a world of fiction that is as tragic as A Farewell to Arms and as sensuous as The English Patient. Crafted from the ruins of war and the indestructibility of love, Birdsong is a novel that will be read and marveled at for years to come.

483 pages, Paperback

First published September 27, 1993

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About the author

Sebastian Faulks

54 books1,906 followers
Sebastian Faulks was born in 1953, and grew up in Newbury, the son of a judge and a repertory actress. He attended Wellington College and studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, although he didn’t enjoy attending either institution. Cambridge in the 70s was still quite male-dominated, and he says that you had to cycle about 5 miles to meet a girl. He was the first literary editor of “The Independent”, and then went on to become deputy editor of “The Sunday Independent”. Sebastian Faulks was awarded the CBE in 2002. He and his family live in London.

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5 stars
31,923 (41%)
4 stars
26,527 (34%)
3 stars
12,407 (16%)
2 stars
3,691 (4%)
1 star
1,527 (2%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,651 reviews
Profile Image for Dem.
1,186 reviews1,098 followers
March 1, 2022
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks is a moving, passionate, shocking, thought provoking and heartbreaking novel. A novel that manages to create a passionate and erotic love story combined with the horrors of war.<\b>

Set before and during the Great War, Birdsong tells the story of Stephen, starting in pre-war France and taking us right through the war and through a terrible period of history.
Faulks delivers a moving and shocking account of Stephen and his love affair and the trials and hardships of trench life and it seems as though at times you are seeing this all through the characters eyes.

This is a powerful novel, and certainly not for the faint hearted. I read this for my local book club and I can imagine when we meet in February this book is going to make for great discussion.

The battlefield scenes are so descriptive and cleverly written and at times make harrowing reading but the author makes sure you are in that trench and you are witnessing the vivid descriptions of carnage and brutalities of War.

I loved the characters and they are so well developed that I found they not only had faces but voices and I had such a connection with each and every one of them.

I learned so much from this book and I really enjoyed the story of the tunnellers, the descriptions of how both sides dug tunnels underground and lay mines under enemy lines was something that I had not been aware of and did some research on since.

This is a book that will stay with me for a long time as it has all the elements of a 5 star read for me. Its got the passion, the history and a great plot. It has the ability to make the reader exclaim out loud and to remember a time when precious lives were lost in the name of war.

I could go on and on but you just have to read it for yourself !
Profile Image for Maureen .
1,379 reviews7,089 followers
December 11, 2012
A very moving and haunting book. It captures the horrors of the first world war in such detail that it will stay with me for a very long time.
Profile Image for Charlotte May.
695 reviews1,073 followers
September 12, 2017
"If I am fighting on behalf of anyone, I think it is for those who have died. Not for the living at home. For the dead, over here."

What a beautiful and moving story!
Birdsong is a powerful novel, spanning generations and taking us through the horrors of World War 1.
Split into mainly 3 sections we begin with Stephen - a young man visiting Amiens in France, staying with a wealthy man and his family, the wife of whom he falls into an illicit love affair with.

"I am driven by a greater force than I can resist. I believe that force has its own reason and it's own morality even if they may never be clear to me while I am alive."

Further down the line we follow Stephen as he is enlisted into the war against Germany. We see both the infantrymen and also the men who work underground, risking being buried alive in order to further their cause.

Faulks' writing is truly outstanding, the fear and hopelessness felt by the men is made vivid and terrifyingly portrayed.

"He's frightened that it doesn't make sense, that there is no purpose. He's afraid that he has somehow strayed into the wrong life."

The final section is two generations later, Elizabeth is researching her family history, looking into her ancestors, in particular her grandfather, who left behind notebooks of his experiences.

"I saw the great void in your soul, and you saw mine."

If I could quote this entire book I would. It was powerfully affecting, emotional and profound. 4.5 stars.

"We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us."

"Which human being out of all those you have met would you choose to hold your hand, to hold close to you in the beginning of eternity?"
Profile Image for Baba.
3,560 reviews853 followers
October 24, 2021
2020 review: A book in seven parts; the first being set in 1910 in France, where a wild affair between a young Stephen Wraysford and his host's wife(!) Isabelle, devastates the families involved, as well as setting the foundations of the book. It then alternates between the lengthy Wraysford 's First World War experiences and the very short sections of his granddaughter seeking to find out his war and post war story.

Hey! I was just setting out the book composition, this is a review of sorts, don't ya know! Alongside the fictionalised first-hand descriptions of the harsh reality of trench warfare, there's also depictions of:
- a war managed by privileged upper class numbskulls
- the tremendous shock of man's inhumane mechanised warfare
- a mainstream movie like manipulation of the reader to underline the little regard for life that war has, where key supporting characters' deaths are almost just footnotes, but a footnote with a sniper's bullet or machine gun fire.
And it all works! I get it, war is bloody awful; but hey this is a thought provoking way of putting that message across. Like a great mainstream movie, this was perfectly pitched, and in the end all the stories match up, and there's a sense you've just been on a great journey.

I was kind of torn, when I first finished this book, I was like... Hell yeah, bring on the Five Stars, but I have to accept that even though the granddaughter's chapters set in the late 1970s are important for the additional story they tell, I just feel that the book would have been better without them. This was also a book that took me nearly 5 months to read, because the intro in Amiens was a bit of a drag for me, young man lusting over hot wife, know what I mean? Overall still a must-read, and a wonderful piece of British fiction, so it's a 9 out of 12, Four Star read.
Profile Image for David.
163 reviews516 followers
December 2, 2014
Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong is a kind of Harlequin romance with a literary slant. All the elements for pulp romance are there: "romantic" hero: soldier, refined gentleman; unhappy married woman; "romantic" locale: French suburbs, countryside; numerous, gratuitous sex scenes (I remember, horrifically, an excess of pulsating "members" and curtains of "flesh"). At the same time, Faulks strives to give it some literary taste, which I believe he largely fails to do. The time-jumping between pre-war, at-war, and present-day seems haphazard, and the present-day revelation of Elizabeth Benson has the dull patina of a celluloid ending (I think of present-day Rose in Titanic, the end of Saving Private Ryan, etc: the cinematic cheat of closing a tragedy by removing it from its era, neglecting the interceding lives of its characters: what I hate about epilogues).

It is no surprise that Faulks was commissioned to ghost-write an installment of the James Bond series (Devil May Care). Faulks writes for the cinema, but mostly he writes to the base male fantasies and mock-Hemingway-an masculinity that appeals to contemporary male readers: sex, war, violence, camaraderie and friendship. His attempts at literary effects fail him, and damage the pulpy material beneath. HE is a plot-author with poor plot-pacing: his attempts to bridge past and present-day (a connection which fails to entertain or convince), repeatedly stunt the built up momentum of Stephen and Isabelle's romance, and later on: the gray-violence of the battlefield.

I look at the top quotes for Birdsong and find dull pulp and platitudes:
I know. I was there. I saw the great void in your soul, and you saw mine.
Something one might find in a schoolboy's diary. The prose, which is often flabby at the seams, is filled with my short phrases with faked originality and stunted aesthetics: slipshod attempts are juxtaposing and reconciling the ugliness of war and the beauty of passion.
Something had been buried that was not yet dead.
The novel abounds in cliché: from trite aphoristic turns-of-phrase, to the overall story: very little strikes the reader as truly original or insightful. The Brideshead Revisited-inspired memories are stilted and unnatural, poorly executed. If one is to read this book, one should only read it at the surface, for a war-torn romance: diving in deeper will only reveal the shallowness beneath the surface: the smallness inside of a postured grandness.
Profile Image for Sue.
1,240 reviews533 followers
September 27, 2014
I have quite mixed feelings about this book. While I found the sections on the war proper quite devastating and very well done, I also found the framing device of the pre-war romance and more present day life far less effective and also less well written. My feelings may also be affected to some extent by other World War I literature that I have been reading as part of the Centennial over the past few months.

I found that the frame story, actually a dual frame, diminished the war story tremendously. In fact I wondered, prior to the war story beginning, whether I would want to complete reading the book.

I've read so many excellent books with the WWI group that did not bother with that kind of tacked on romance, etc. It's simply not necessary. And Faulk certainly demonstrated the skill to write a full book without it. This made me wonder whether he may not have trusted his audience to come to the book. But then I see how many others give this book top ratings and realize that I am out of sync with the majority on this book. But I have no problem with that. I was simply quite surprised when I read the it as my expectations were much different!!
Profile Image for Lance Greenfield.
Author 119 books234 followers
June 14, 2015
It's as if the author is writing from personal experience.

The way that the characters and the atmosphere are built by Sebastian Faulks is just amazing! The reader is taken in to that atmosphere, and shares the feelings of the main character, Stephen. You cannot fail to be totally captivated.

Anyone who has served for any significant period in the Armed Forces will instantly relate to the use of black humour to cover the awful reality and horror. Faulks also manages to reflect on how every aspect of life continues, perhaps in the background, as the war goes on. There is a strong and emotive love story. There is a very powerful understanding of the futility of war and its effects on everyone involved, regardless of national allegiance. One of the most poignant parts of the book, for me, is the description of the feelings of the sappers as they tunnel deep below the battlefield, knowing that their counterparts are experiencing the same hopes and fears, only feet away through the awful mud and darkness. Death is never more than a split second away.

Note: It makes it even more personal to me as I was in the Royal Engineers (Sappers) during my military career. I'm happy to report, though, that I never had to get involved in the activity of sapping, or tunnelling.

Having had the privilege of sitting with Somme veterans, listening to their vivid memories of the trenches and the contacts, and those friends who lost their lives, I can say, with great confidence, that the superb writing of Birdsong takes us as close to being there as is possible.

A scene which, some may say, in the greater scheme of the whole book pales into insignificance but is still very well worth mentioning, is the extremely erotic, yet tastefully presented, first sexual encounter between Stephen and Isabelle, which occurs early on in the story. There are other encounters throughout the book, but I found this to be one of the most sexually arousing pieces of writing that I have ever read. It omits just the right amount of detail to allow the reader's imagination to run riot. Amazing!

Every emotion is touched during the reading of this book.

The title is evocative. I found several reasons to entitle the book this way, not least Stephen's declaration regarding his feelings about birds and the reasons behind those feelings. When you read the book, keep the title in your mind. Seeking the meaning adds an extra dimension to your reading.

It is a shame that it is not possible to award six stars to any book that I review, for Birdsong would surely deserve such an award. This one definitely makes it into my lifetime favourite five.

I would have no hesitation in recommending Birdsong to absolutely anyone, but most especially to any politician who is thinking about sending young people to their deaths in war.

Footnote: I was surprised that The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann featured in Sebastian Faulks's top one hundred books. It sits right at the opposite end of the gripping to boring spectrum of reading to this magnificent work: Birdsong is gripping.
Profile Image for Angela M .
1,285 reviews2,205 followers
October 30, 2014
There's a love affair, so passionate, but yet illicit and at first I thought that this is what was going to get to me in this novel. It did, but the most powerful, thought provoking thing about this book is what happened to the men in the trenches during WW I.

The gruesome, gut wrenching realities for soldiers fighting this war are told in phrases so descriptive that you almost wish you hadn't read them - about the smell of blood, wounds and body parts, the claustrophobic, horrific conditions in the tunnels and ultimately what the men lose of themselves .There are friendships and brotherhoods that grow making for some moving and very sad scenes.

The novel moves across years - 1910, the war years 1916 – 1918, 1978 and 1979. Stephen and Isabelle’s story came to life in the early parts of the novel, but I found it somewhat difficult to connect with Elizabeth's character as we meet her in 1978. I usually enjoy these past - present stories that link but other than being family, I just didn't feel a real emotional connection between the stories. Having said that, this novel is not one that I will soon forget. 4 stars and highly recommended but not for the faint of heart.
Profile Image for Hester.
378 reviews27 followers
August 25, 2012
Birdsong? More like Birdshit. I may have given this book one star, but I really give it 20 piles of steaming birdshit.

I can't even contain the hatred I feel for this one. It's just horrible. Everything and I mean everything about it, is just horrible.

It starts off as a supposed love story between a young Englishman Stephen Wraysford and some French harlot named Isabelle. But it's not a love story, it's a fuck story that includes bastard children, betrayal and whole lot of boring WWI shit thrown in.

After skimming through it just to finish it, my reaction was so strong that I threw it across the room and scared the shit out of my cats.

116 reviews40 followers
January 25, 2018
Not until almost the end when my 5-star became a certainty, and not until shortly before that when my first tear came. Yes, it was intense, as any book about a major war out to be. the intensity in this book did not manifest itself only through the gruesomeness the wreckage, and the atrocity associated with the war, but the emotional struggles beneath the surface of ordinary human beings being pulled out of the reality of their otherwise ordinary, though not necessarily perfect lives.
It was Stephen’s story through and through; even with the extension to his granddaughter Elizabeth 60 years ago. Stephen made an entrance to the story as a compulsive and reckless young man barely out of boyhood. The war reshaped him, and at the end we discovered along with Stephen himself, the will to live and the compassion to others that he never had thought he possessed.
“Escaped from extermination, Stephen feared nothing any more. In the existence he had rejoined, so strange and so removed from what seemed natural, there was only violent death or life to choose between; finer distinctions, such as love, preference or kindness, were redundant.”
At a certain point, I was just as fed up with the war as the soldiers in the story. Elizabeth’s episodes were cleverly inserted by the author to provide me for the breaks like Stephen had during the war.
There were quite a number of memorable characters, Isabelle, Jeanne, Colonel Gray, JACK FIREBRACE, Captain Weir, Elizabeth’s boyfriend Robert… like Stephen, they are all conflicted characters in one way or another, yet felt so realistic and believable.
Elizabeth’s love story echoed her grandmother’s but with its own spirals— History Does Not Repeat Itself, But It Rhymes .
This was my first book by the author, and my first novel with detailed coverage on WWI. I know there are two other books in the trilogy. After being so marveled by this one, not sure if I should pick them up.
Profile Image for Nemo ☠️ (pagesandprozac).
865 reviews397 followers
April 16, 2021
warning: this review contains anger, copious swearing, and discussion of rape and misogyny.

whenever anyone asks me what my least favourite book is, i always say this, which seems odd considering it's been voted as the 100 best books on a bbc list or whatever it was.

usually, when i study a book, my appreciation and enjoyment of it multiplies tenfold. take, for example, the great gatsby, which i had liked previously but became one of my favourite books of all time when i began to study it.

now this... thing.

i don't understand why it has so much critical acclaim, i don't understand why i'm studying it at A Level, and i don't understand why it's one of the nation's favourite novels. i don't understand.

the novel opens before the war, and stephen has an affair with isabelle. although isabelle does consent, there are some really rapey and misogynistic undertones that make me highly uncomfortable and i have no fucking idea why faulks decided to include them. choice extracts include:

"The force that drove through him could not be stopped. The part of his mind that remained calm accepted this; if the necessity could not be denied, then the question was only whether it could be achieved with her consent."

"The more she imagined the degradation of her false modesty the more she felt excited.

false modesty????? isabelle's initial denial is "false modesty"?!?!?! i'm going to be sick. oh, and not only are the sex scenes misogynistic as fuck, they're also terribly written. like, honestly, they've practically turned me fully-fledged Gay.

"turning like a key in the split lock of her flesh"

ummmm?? ouch?? not to mention how that also has misogynistic undertones tbh of being Unlocked by sex, can faulks Stop. how much do i have to pay to get him to Stop

ok now the rest. i was completely Bored for the entire novel, and isabelle and stephen's storyline is repeated in elizabeth and whatever the fuck her lover's name is, i can't remember. that is how much i care. now, supposedly this mirroring is supposed to Show The Interconnection Between The Past And Present And Future but to me it just seemed like faulks ran out of fucking ideas.

elizabeth is honestly such an irritating character. "wow i just realised the war was bad!!!" fuck off liz.

the only character i liked was that dude elizabeth works with who went to a restaurant, ordered solely wine, and lit a cigarette. Big Mood, and an Even Bigger Mood after reading this damn novel.

oh yeah and all the women want children??? literally all of them??? excuse me but having children is not the be all and end all of womanhood.

also: it seems the be all and end all of manhood is having sex. one of the soldiers is a virgin and he's fine with it but stephen is all "you are Incomplete you must go to a brothel" and the soldier doesn't want to but stephen makes him?? which is rape (AGAIN!!). oh, and at this brothel stephen pulls a knife out on a prostitute, and the prostitute.... holds his hand afterwards?????? fuck that shit bruv i don't care if he's a Damaged Soldier With Psychological Pain no man's gonna pull out a knife on me like that, the fuck?? many soldiers have ptsd and do not feel the urge to wave knives at prostitutes, fuck off faulks. thanks for perpetuating the mental illness makes you violent myth.

tl dr; a literary trainwreck, -100000/10, would not recommend.
Profile Image for Barbara.
273 reviews213 followers
November 6, 2019
Birdsong is a historical drama about WWI. Whenever I read about the tragedies of war I realize that had I been a soldier I never would have mentally recovered from the atrocities witnessed. Stephen, the main character, does recover but at a great cost.

When the book begins Stephen is an impetuous twenty year old. War is not yet in his future. There are a few references to the song of birds and how this sound is annoying to him. This will not always be the case. As we follow Stephen through his horrific war experiences, we realize how he is maturing - not just aging but developing a new humanity. His courage and his desire to survive are vivid and beautifully detailed. The song of birds, once so annoying, becomes the sound of hope and life. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger really applies here.

I don't think Stephen's youthful love affair nor his granddaughter's story were nearly as convincing . Still, this is a moving, heart wrenching book and I definitely recommend it.

From Bob Dylan's Blowin' in the Wind

How many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?

And how many deaths will it take 'til he knows
That too many people have died?
Profile Image for Kevin Ansbro.
Author 5 books1,393 followers
April 24, 2016
From lovelorn soldiers, knee-deep in French mud, to privileged ladies taking tea in Blighty, Birdsong is a war story that appeals to both sexes. Class war/ real war; there are so many dimensions to this thunderous epic.
Through unaffected prose, Faulks manipulates our emotions in a way that few authors can.
My wife proclaims this to be her most favourite read, and were she to have typed this review, it would have attracted an easy five stars.
Profile Image for Jo.
268 reviews946 followers
November 4, 2011
"It was not his death that mattered; it was the way the world had been dislocated. It was not all the tens of thousands of deaths that mattered; it was the way they had proved that you could be human yet act in a way that was beyond nature."

This ‘review’ might sound like a huge cliché, and for that I apologise. What I don’t apologise for is the sentiments behind it because I mean every word.
I approached this book, the third time I have read it, with extreme caution. I felt like I was meeting up with friends that I hadn’t seen for a while. Situations had changed, circumstances had changed and, perhaps most importantly, my reading tastes had changed.
Like many people who chose to take English Literature as an A-Level, I was told that I should read this for my War Literature Module. I’ve had bad experience with course books, experiences that started in high school and stretched right up until I graduated university. So I was sceptical to say the least.
But Birdsong was different.
I truly connected with this book, the story, the writing but, most of all, the characters.
So when I decided to re-read it, I was nervous. Would Stephen be as damaged but heroic as I remembered him? Will Weir still make me ache with sadness? Would Jack still make me cry with laughter… and then overwhelm me with emotion? Will Jeanne still garner my utmost respect? Would Isabelle still make me feel conflicted until the very last page?

The answer to all these questions is ‘yes’.
There are four parts in this book that I will always remember.
And I know people who are reading this will be like… woah spoilers, but that’s the thing. If you know anything about the war, whether it’s due to an interest in history, you’ve read books, you’ve listened to your grandparent’s talking about it… you know that this actually happened.
I wish there was a spoiler tag for history but, unfortunately, there isn’t.
(But if you want to know nothing about this book… please skip this next part.)

The first is the part where Stephen is reading the letters in the trenches. This bit is so raw with emotion that my heart physically ached. The letter that I seem to have remembered most vividly is Tipper’s, a relatively minor character. At first you might think that him writing things such as “It’s a terrific show” and “Our guns are putting on a display like Firework Night. We are going to attack and we can’t wait to let Fritz have it” is down to youthful enthusiasm and ignorance. He’s new to the war and he’s never been over the top before, so he doesn’t know what to expect. But really these frivolous words are because he’s afraid but doesn’t want his parents, who are seeing the war through the newspapers alone, to know the truth.
The second scene is Weir’s visit back home. His father’s conversation with him, dismissing his son’s cry for help because he knows, was unfortunately something that happened often. And not just on the British side, in All Quiet on the Western Front there is a particularly poignant scene where Paul visits home and realises that everything has stayed the same, but completely incomprehensible to someone who has seen what he has seen.
The third part is where the soldiers are require to venture back into No Man’s Land and collect the bodies of their dead. This scene, which is difficult to stomach seeing as Faulk’s can perfectly describe the state of a body who has been left to the elements for two weeks, was unbearably haunting. My heart bled, and continues to bleed, for Brennan.
And the fourth was the one of the last scenes with Stephen in the mines. With the aid of Faulks’ writing, I could feel the hammering of Stephen’s heart, his desperation, his hope fading, his desire to live and the grime beneath my finger nails.
What I love the most about this book and perhaps why I’ve read it so many times and will continue to read it again and again is how Mr Faulks portrays the human spirit when humanity has been completely deserted.
Birdsong is a shocking book and there are many passages that made me feel sick to my stomach, angry and so sad that I had to actually stop reading and do something else for a while. It is difficult to read this book and not get immersed in it.
Yes, you might get bored with the love story (and don’t forget that shocking and explicit part where people have sex! Shock, horror) and yes you might get a bit bored with Elizabeth’s story line (I actually love that bit… I find it extremely honest and realistic), but there is no denying that the parts in the trenches with Stephen, Weir, Firebrace and the rest of the men are nothing short of astounding.

”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.”

This review is part of my Poppies & Prose feature. You can read more about it here.
Profile Image for Sandysbookaday is (reluctantly) on hiatus.
1,968 reviews2,037 followers
March 23, 2017
Another touching foray by Sebastian Faulks into life before and during WWI. Birdsong captures the drama of that era on both a national and a personal scale. It is the story of Stephen, a young Englishman, who arrives in Amiens in 1910. His life goes through a series of traumatic experiences, from the clandestine love affair that tears apart the family with whom he lives to the unprecedented experience of the war itself. His depiction of Stephen Wraysford's life during the war is very realistic, gut-wrenchingly so.

The story is a poignant one, and Samuel West does a great job of the narration.

Profile Image for Erin.
2,955 reviews485 followers
February 23, 2018
Think of the words on that memorial, Wraysford. Think of those stinking towns and foul bloody villages whose names will be turned into some bogus glory by fat-arsed historians who have sat in London. We were there. As our punishment for God knows what, we were there, and our men died in each of those disgusting places. I hate their names. I hate the sound of them and the thought of them, which is why I will not bring myself to remind you.

Wow! First published in 1994, Birdsong is a WWI era novel that spans 1910-1979 and focuses on main protagonist, Stephen Wraysford, a young Englishman that begins a sordid affair with a French businessmen's wife, Madame Azaire. The two are separated and years laters Stephen is now serving in the British army in France. In the 1970's timeline, a young woman named Elizabeth is becoming increasingly interested in a series of notebooks that she has found in her mother's attic and they may just have the key to some untold family secrets left over from the war.

Many times I have lain down and I have longed for death. I feel unworthy. I feel guilty because I have survived. Death will not come and I am cast adrift in a perpetual present. I do not know what I have done to live in this existence. I do not know what any of us did to tilt the world into the unnatural orbit. We came here for only a few months.
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 buisness like human beings.
We will seal what we have seen in the silence of our hearts and no words will reach us.

Sebastien Faulks won my heart with his WWII espionage book, Charlotte Gray. Well, right until that ending that left me scratching my head. But Birdsong truly moved me and is quite simply- an AMAZING book. It is less the romance, but Stephen's time on the frontlines and his time with his men that was truly the gem of the book.

No one in England knows what this is like. If they could see the way these men live they would not believe their eyes. This is not a war, this is an exploration of how far men can be degraded.
April 17, 2012
I believe there are novels that affect you long after you have closed the book and I do believe that this is one of them. It was fated for me to read this book (at least I believe it to be so) since as I walked into the library, this book was propped up on the shelf seeming to send a message saying take me home. I listened and am ever so grateful I did take this powerful book home and to heart.

My grandfather (age sixteen) fought in the Argonne forrest and was gassed in WW 1. He was in the trenches and as I read I pictured him there among the rats, the mud, the awfulness of war. Perhaps this connection made the book not just another book about a war, but one that held memories for me of a beloved man who was just a kid fighting a onerous war.

Stephen, our protagonist was the ultimate soldier, not because he wanted to be, but because his humaneness made him so. He endeavored to remain, while carrying on a torrid affair with a married woman, aloof and separate all his feelings that he had buried so long. He was an orphan in more than the physical sense as he tries to understand himself and the turmoil of emotions, and the heinousness of war. Reading this book and knowing the conditions under which these young men lived and died was a nightmare come true. Is it any wonder that these boys, at least the ones who managed to get through the war as Stephen did, were left indelibly marked by tragedy, grief, and the smell of death. Oftentimes, it got to the point in my reading where I felt I just could not go on, and yet I could not stop. I was in a extremely small way like the soldiers forced to look at things deadly unpleasant and vile.

The book was utterly mesmerizing in its portrayal of Stephen and all the things that ultimately made him what he later would be. He was a broken man, as I am sure all those young boys who survived were. Yet, survive he did almost as if fated to do so. With so much carnage surrounding them, I am sure oftentimes even in survival, they wished to be among the dead.

The writing and story, so powerfully told were only slightly marred by the woman, Isabelle, Stephen's love. She eventually, at least to me, became an intrusion in the story. I also, did feel that the granddaughter's part did not enhance the story as well.

All in all, this was Stephen's story and one that all should hear no matter how many years have passed since The Great War. When you think of courage, of determination, of the best that men can be in a situation where there is nothing but death and decay, you will think of Stephen's story.
Profile Image for Zhiqing .
191 reviews2 followers
May 21, 2012
Beautifully written. As the subtitle indicates, this is a "A Novel of Love and War". The part about THE war, I have to admit I had very little knowledge of WWI before I read this book, except for the bare minimum of how it started and how a great many young men died in the war. I also don't normally read books with many battle scenes and with war as the main theme, but once I started reading this one, I just couldn't put it down until I reached the last page. What moved me most was the detailed description of the tension in the anticipation of the attacks(i.e., Battle of the Somme), the horror of being trapped in tunnels thirty feet underground in no man's land, and the psychological effect of the sheer brutality of the war on the soldiers, which were unimaginable and devastating to say the least. I was on the verge of tears a few times! The last chapter about the war was this truly remarkable story of endurance, bravery, survival and humanity that would bring you down to your knees. I also found the parts about tunnel digging very interesting to read as well, believe it or not. It gives you a good sense of how part of the war was fought on both sides.

The part about love was also very well done. Now I see why Faulks was commissioned to write Devil May Care as Ian Fleming. Some passages in the first part of the novel were so sensual that I almost couldn't believe a man actually wrote it.
Profile Image for Peter Boyle.
489 reviews596 followers
July 21, 2019
How much do you know about World War I? If you're like me, very little. In his introduction to Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks explains that World War II came along so quickly, that the preceding conflict was kind of overlooked in literature, and not as much was written about it. Well he certainly did his best to address that gap with the masterful Birdsong.

We begin in 1910. Stephen Wraysford, a 20-year-old Englishman, travels to Amiens on business. He falls head over heels for Isabelle, an older woman, who leaves her husband and stepchildren to begin a new life with her lover. Eventually, she becomes overwhelmed with guilt and returns to her family, leaving Stephen crushed. Six years later, he is back in the same region, now a Lieutenant in the British forces preparing for the Battle of the Somme. In the face of absolute horror and probable death, he does not allow himself to think about love, or what life after this conflict could even look like. But he just might end up seeing Isabelle again, and perhaps there is more to their story than he knows.

The romance is one of the reasons Birdsong works so well. The passion in Stephen and Isabelle's relationship is so electric - the snatched, illicit moments of their affair, the excitement of their elopement, the possibilities that lay ahead. And of course, its demise is devastating. All of Stephen's army colleagues have somebody they want to return home to, a face they desperately want to see again that gives them a reason to survive. He tells himself that he doesn't have anyone like this, that he never did. But deep down, he knows that's not true.

However, the crowning achievement of Birdsong is its unflinching depiction of war. The earsplitting cacophony of the artillery, the claustrophobia of the tunnels, the never-ending mud, the smell of sweat and shit, the horror of seeing a head explode in front of your eyes. The heartbreaking letters sent home from the Somme, its writers knowing that they were almost certainly going to die in the coming hours. The bodies in pieces, pale and rotting in no man's land. The senseless brutality of it all, summed up by a roll call after the battle, ringing with unanswered names:
"Names came pattering into the dusk, bodying out the places of their forebears, the villages and towns where the telegrams would be delivered, the houses where the blinds would be drawn, where low moans would come in the afternoon behind closed doors; and the places that had borne them, which would be like nunneries, like dead towns without their life or purpose, without young men at the factories or in the fields, with no husbands for the women, no deep sound of voices in the inns, with the children who would have been born, who would have grown and worked or painted, even governed, left ungenerated in their fathers' shattered flesh that lay in stinking shellholes in the beet crop soil, leaving their homes to put up only granite slabs in place of living flesh, on whose inhuman surface the moss and lichen would cast their crawling green indifference."

I came very close to awarding this novel the full five stars, but I did find it a little bit drawn-out at times, especially in the final chapters. This is a small complaint (and maybe I am too hard to please!). For at its best, Birdsong is a stunning feat - tense, powerful and unbearably moving. It's the kind of book you want to press into the hands of world leaders before they embark on some unnecessary, avoidable war. An unforgettable read.
Profile Image for Susan's Reviews.
1,074 reviews491 followers
September 12, 2021

Shocker: For me, I liked the BBC series better than the books! I saw the series first, then tried to read the books. I had to DNF them barely half way in: the descriptions of the trenches and the horrible conditions were too graphic for me. Jean-Pierre Jeunet's The Long Engagement was another brilliant adaptation of a book (by Sebastien Japrisot) which I also ended up DNFing - once again because it was just too graphic. (There is no doubt in my mind that WWI was absolute hell on earth. Too bad we humans couldn't learn our lesson the first time!)

In my younger, braver years, I'd already read a fair amount on the subject in Delderfield's many novels, and my heart couldn't take another volley of shrapnel, blood, guts and gore!

If you have a stronger stomach than mine, go ahead and read the books. I highly recommend the BBC One movie adaptation: excellent acting by Eddie Redmayne and Clemence Poesy. I bought my own DVD copy of the series. It was a brilliant adaptation and of course all of the actors were outstanding.

March 3, 2009
This book is a bit of a mixed bag really. The romance is quickly introduced and proceeds with relative alacrity, but the essence of it left me unconvinced. The standout part of the whole novel is Wraysford's time in the trenches during the Great War. I have never read a book that has ever given me a clearer idea of what this battlefield was like, and the horrors that these men lived through and then carried with them. It is some of the most powerful writing I have seen, and the chilling coldness with which Wraysford treats all this is really evocative. He has seen it and lived with it for so long, tempered by a lost love, that he merely lingers, waiting for the inevitable. The final third, in which one of Wraysford's descendants enacts an oddysey into her lineage is not so well done. I can understand the intentions, but it just falls wide of the mark, and was in the end so ineffectual as to become almost redundant. I would reccommend it though, if only for Wraysford's wartime experiences.
Profile Image for Grace Tjan.
188 reviews506 followers
February 20, 2012
I waver between two or three stars for this book. The writing is serviceable, but often terminally pedestrian, and occasionally clumsy (“Stephen lifted searching eyes above the soup spoon as he sucked the liquid over his teeth”). The plotting is similarly ham-fisted, with its tepid “romances”, and unaffecting, though undoubtedly well-researched war scenes (“Stephen watched the men go on madly, stepping over the bodies of their friends, clearing one firebay at a time, jostling one another to be first to traverse. They had dead brothers and friends on their minds; they were galvanized beyond fear. They were killing with pleasure. They were not normal”). It’s as though Faulks had decided that, after dutifully wading through volumes of war correspondences and field reports, he would create certain characters representative of the era and then assign random period characteristics to them. They remain as shallow as a soldier’s hasty grave, and thus their historically accurate gory deaths are devoid of pathos. But the turning point for me was the totally extraneous subplot involving Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter, and the eye-rollingly unbelievable climax of her story. In her late thirties, involved in an unpromising affair with an older married man, Elizabeth develops a sudden interest in her grandfather’s war diaries and discovers facts about her family’s past --- in a particularly slow-witted way:

“Elizabeth did some calculations on a piece of paper, Grand-mere born 1878. Mum born…she was not sure exactly how old her mother was. Between sixty-five and seventy. Me born 1940. Something did not quite add up in her calculations, though it was possibly her arithmetic that was to blame.”

Umm --- my nine-year old knows how old I am. Elizabeth was raised by her mother, Francoise, and is the managing director of her company. There is no indication whatsoever that her mother wants to keep any family history secret. The implication is that they are curiously dull, or so bovinely indifferent, that such basic facts simply never came up in their family life.

Or perhaps, her abject ignorance is a clunky plot device.

Whatever. By this point, I’m plodding through the story like a WW I soldier through waist-high muck. But wait, Elizabeth is also historically challenged:

Francoise: “I was sent to Jeanne from Germany, where I had been living, because my real mother had died. She died of flu.”

Elizabeth: “Of flu? That’s impossible.”

Francoise: “No. There was an epidemic. It killed millions of people in Europe just after the end of the war.”

Er, Elizabeth --- how did you get past high school?

Elizabeth and her married lover proceed to “create an autonomous human life from nothing”, and this is unequivocally portrayed as something gloriously life-affirming. Somehow, Stephen’s wartime heroism inspired her to conquer her impending mid-life/ biological clock crisis by procreating. Screw the wife and kids. They’re obliviously happy. Francoise is non-judgmentally supportive. Stephen’s legacy lives on. The end.

Two stars it is.
Profile Image for Giedre.
57 reviews46 followers
September 27, 2015
A hundred years have passed after World War I, one of the biggest atrocities in our history. The last surviving veteran passed away two years ago, taking the last living memory of those horrible years along with her. It is now up to us to keep alive the memories of those who have endured the war and of those who have not. It is up to us to remember. It is up to us to keep history from repeating itself.

"Birdsong" by Sebastian Faulks was my personal choice to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I. The book follows the life of a young Briton Stephen, whom we meet in France, first on a work mission, and years later on a totally different mission in the midst of WWI. The book jumps back and forth in time, taking us to late 70’s as well, where we meet Stephen’s granddaughter Elizabeth in her late thirties. Never having known her grandfather, who had died before she was born, she decides to learn as much as possible about him and goes on a strange quest in search of the lost memories.

Although I had mixed feelings about the book, the main reason being my inability to connect emotionally to its characters, I think that it definitely fulfilled the mission I assigned to it. It taught me things about WWI I was not aware about, even though historical fiction and wars were receiving a lot of my attention lately. It made me look for more information about the war and convinced me at the same time that France deserves another visit of mine, this time to places such as Thiepval or Amiens. It also made me ask myself if normality can ever be restored after one has experienced a war.

“It was not his death that mattered; it was the way the world had been dislocated. It was not all the tens of thousands of deaths that mattered; it was the way they had proved that you could be a human yet act in a way that was beyond nature.”

Does the war ever stop for those who have been part of it? Is it possible return and quietly accept that life continues like nothing ever happened behind the front line, accept the lack of intensity, accept that nobody who has not lived such experience will ever understand their eternal grief, their fear to befriend anybody lest they die tomorrow, their war induced hatred to people they have never met in their lives, their guilt of surviving when others are gone?

“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.”

Although I found the characters a little too shallow and underdeveloped for my taste, and was a little bit annoyed by the patronizing tone and the author trying to explain every detail of some almost self-explanatory things, the book still managed to touch me in other ways, and thus my four stars. Let us keep those memories alive.
Profile Image for Ty-Orion.
358 reviews115 followers
April 3, 2020
"Очите ѝ се впиха в щръкналата му плът."

Заслужавам повече.
Profile Image for Jane .
20 reviews50 followers
May 26, 2017
A short review can be found here and two passages from the book, below. Recommended.

The night poured down in waves from the ridge above them and the guns at last fell silent. The earth began to move. To their right a man who had lain still since the first attack, eased himself upright, then fell again when his damaged leg would not take his weight. Other single men moved, and began to come up like worms from their shellholes, limping, crawling, dragging themselves out. Within minutes the hillside was seething with the movement of the wounded as they attempted to get themselves back to their line... It was like a resurrection in a cemetery twelve miles long. Bent, agonized shapes loomed in multitudes on the churned earth, limping and dragging back to reclaim their life. It was as though the land were disgorging a generation of crippled sleepers, each one distinct but related to its twisted brothers as they teemed up from the reluctant earth.


To begin with he asked after the whereabouts of each missing man. After a time he saw that it would take too long. Those who had survived were not always sure whom they had seen dead. They hung their heads in exhaustion, as though every organ of their bodies was begging for release. Price began to speed the process. He hurried from one unanswered name to the next. Byrne, Hunt, Jones, Tipper, Wood, Leslie, Barnes, Studd, Richardson, Savile, Thompson, Hodgson, Birkenshaw, Llewellyn, Francis, Arkwright, Duncan, Shea, Simons, Anderson, Blum, Fairbrother. Names came pattering into the dusk, bodying out the places of their forebears, the villages and towns where the telegrams would be delivered, the houses where the blinds would be drawn, where low moans would come in the afternoon behind closed doors; and the places that had borne them, which would be like nunneries, like dead towns without their life or purpose, without the sound of fathers and their children, without young men at the factories or in the fields, with no husbands for the women, no deep sound of voices in the inns, with the children who would have been born, who would have grown and worked or painted, even governed, left ungenerated in their fathers’ shattered flesh that lay in stinking shellholes in the beet-crop soil, leaving their homes to put up only granite slabs in place of living flesh, on whose inhuman surface the moss and lichen would cast their crawling green indifference.
Profile Image for Matthew Ted.
712 reviews588 followers
February 27, 2018
When I finished this I was in a towel, laying on a bed in Porto Santo. The fan was whirring and my brother was in the shower. It was one of those times when you feel so oppressed by the heat that you don't want to move and I figured as long as I was in a towel and still wet, I would be cooler, to some degree. So, I picked up Birdsong and finished it.

It was my dad who recommended it to me, and all the way through the book I was wondering why he loved it so much. It was good, well written and War has always interested me as a subject but I wasn't as mind-blown as I was expecting. But then, lying on the bed in a towel under the fan and listening to the shower pouring into the tub, I put it down and felt crushed. Physically crushed as if a great weight was suddenly dropped onto my shoulders, like I was swinging a bag full of rocks onto my back and it was the first time I felt like I had to stay still and silent for a moment to recover from the power of a book. That's why it has my five stars.
May 25, 2017
I received a stark warning before I even picked this book out to read. I was informed it was a difficult read, and I would fall in love with it. That person has never been more correct in their life.
Faulks has created a poignant and epic love story, set in the absolute atrocities of the first world war. The scenes in the trenches are truly horrific and they tell the reader the very depths of human despair. I had to pause after a couple of these such scenes, just to let what I had just read, sink in.
This book contains probably the most raw accounts of war, that I have ever read. This is beautifully and skillfully balanced out with a romantic story, which I didn't think I would love as much as I have.

The last sixty pages of this book were exhausting, tense, and to be honest, I found I was not dry eyed by the time I'd finished. I just didn't want this book to finish. My poor heart is literally aching, and I most definitely need to rest it. Five stars is simply not enough for this literary masterpiece.

Profile Image for Connie G.
1,688 reviews451 followers
February 18, 2018
"Birdsong" follows Englishman Stephen Wraysford from a prewar intense relationship with a married French woman to the battlefield of the Somme. The horror of World War I is shown in a realistic manner involving all the senses. In his own way each soldier must deal with the trauma of trench warfare, or digging in the dark, narrow, claustrophobic tunnels under enemy lines.

There is a second thread to this book set in the 1970s involving Stephen's granddaughter, Elizabeth. She is trying to decipher some of Stephen's diaries written in code. There are events in her life that run parallel to her grandparents' prewar life which are more acceptable in 1970s society.

The descriptions of the events in Stephen's life, especially during the war, were excellent. While the plotline set in the 1970s was not as strong, it did offer the reader some relief from the soldiers' constant exposure to filth, fear, sickness, and death.
Profile Image for Julie.
Author 6 books1,761 followers
January 23, 2014
ETA to add link to segment aired on NPR 1/23/14 on digitized British World War I diaries. See below.

Someone should have warned me. Someone should have known I am acutely claustrophobic and that opening the door to this book would be inviting in the specter of a panic attack. Picture me curled on the sofa or huddled beneath the covers, my breath shallow, my heart racing, my throat closing as soldiers worm their way through tunnels beneath the trenches. Feel the numbing of my extremities, the draining of blood from my face, the hot rush of acid in my belly, the rise of bile in my throat as those tunnel walls begin to cave and threaten to trap those young men in a tomb made of French dirt. Even now my hands shake with the memory of some of this novel's most horrific scenes. For I couldn't stop reading, I couldn't look away, even through my tears and hyperventilation, I read on.

So, consider yourself warned. This book contains the stuff of nightmares. And it's not just the dreadful tunnels, it is the unrelenting, unfathomable misery of the World War I battlefields. What is it about this war? All war is hideous, but there is something about this war-the number of casualties, the waves and waves of young men released onto the battlefields as cannon fodder, the squalor of the trenches, the chemicals-it was a war that obliterated a generation. Many of those who survived became empty shells, having left their hope and their souls and in some cases, their minds, to the battlefields of the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun, Ypres.

Birdsong owns the war, it lives and breathes in those trenches. Your skin will crawl with lice, you will feel the slip and muck of blood and brains underneath your boots; hell, you'll feel your toes crumbling with trenchfoot inside your rotting boots. You will cry out in horror as a soldier whose name you've just learned, whose two or three paragraphs will have you aching for his girl and his parents back in Surrey, dissolves in a cloud of flesh and bone beside you. Yes, you have been warned. This is not an easy read.

But Birdsong is more than a black, white, red reel of warfare. It begins as a love story between an odd and doomed French woman, Isabelle Azaire and a very young and impassioned Englishman, Stephen Wraysford. Their adulterous affair in Isabelle's home in Amiens six years before the war opens Birdsong. Part One, the first one hundred-odd pages-is an unsettling combination of tedium and floridity as Stephen and Isabelle tear off their clothes and Edwardian sensibilities under the noses of Isabelle's husband and two stepchildren. The affair ends but their story carries on, surfacing many years later as the war tears into homes, flesh and families. It is Stephen whom we follow throughout the story, he who carries us onto the battlefield, into the trenches and down those dreadful tunnels.

Halfway through the story we jump to 1978, where Elizabeth Benson has taken a sudden interest in her grandfather, Stephen Wraysford and the fate of the men who died in or limped home from the trenches of World War I. Here the narrative stumbles a bit. Elizabeth, now in her late 30s, seems entirely unaware of the horrors of The Great War. This rang utterly false. "No one told me," she says upon seeing the battlefields and monuments of the Somme. I think a British citizen of her generation would have been well aware of the magnitude of that war. But Faulks gives Elizabeth a strong voice and her own personal dilemmas that bring the existential quest for meaning and truth full circle. We don't stay in late 70s London for long, but we dip in and out until the novel's end as Elizabeth's story becomes woven into her grandfather's.

Sebastian Faulk's writing is sumptuous and pitch perfect, capturing the essence of each of the three eras he writes--the tumescent melodrama that unfolds in Amiens in 1910, the desperation, emptiness and incongruous vividness of the war years, and the practical, surging energy and wealth of late 70s London. This is a great novel, an engrossing but devastating read. Just look up every so often and take deep, slow breaths. You'll need them.

Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,734 reviews1,469 followers
February 14, 2017
Buddy Read with Silver Raindrop. :0)
We will leave comments with each other below our reviews, for those who are interested.

I have listened to only twenty minutes. I love the prose style, the narration of the audiobook by Peter Firth is excellent and the events already have me terribly curious. Steven is creeping around a house in his socks searching for who has screamed! The depiction of Amiens, where the house is located, is perfect. I have been there, so I know. Unfortunately the narrator pronounced the city name incorrectly, but his baritone singing of a song in the text has me forgiving this error. And there is a discussion which illustrates how the French and the English view each other...... Funny! I guess you could say I like this from page one.

I could not stop listening to this book. It is wonderful. I just finished. I haven't been able to do anything except listen to this book. Excellent narration by Peter Firth. I loved it. I loved all the emotion - horror of war and passionate love. And great lines and so much to think about...... Can I collect my thoughts?!

This book has everything. It is exciting and horribly moving and oh so wonderful. It is like life: full of the worst and most wonderful.

There are lines you must ponder. Why does one fight in a war? Who do we fight for? Do you fight for your land, your family, your friends....or for those comrades who have fought and died next to you? You are in the trenches and in tunnels, in the middle of bombardments. You are in a tunnel and you may be suffocated and buried alive. This book is about fear. This book is about the warfare of WW1.

But there is humor and passionate love too. Their is death and there is birth. There is hope and despair. The story takes place during WW1 in the trenches in France. It also has events set later, in the 70s. Most authors cannot switch between different time periods. In this book the two are wonderfully intertwined.

This book rips you apart, scares you to death, rolls you in passionate, sensual love, one minute has you giggling and then later pondering the essence of life and death and fear. The book is an emotional roller coaster. And you will learn what it was really like to fight in the first world war. You can swallow the horror because it is balanced by humor and love and passion and even hope and happiness.

I loved this book. So far this is the best book I have read about WW1.
(See my WW1 shelf if you are curious for other titles: http://www.goodreads.com/review/list/...

Ooops, I think I am gushing!
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