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Birdsong - Sebastian Faulks

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      24.05.2012 14:08
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      An absorbing tale of love and war

      Birdsong, for me, was one of those books that had been on my 'to read' list for years. Indeed, the copy I own is littered with praise from critics, which left little doubt in my mind that I was in for an absorbing read.

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      Summary
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      The plot primarily revolves around the life of Stephen Wraysford at various points throughout his life in France, prior to and during WWI. Initially, we meet Stephen in 1910; he has arrived at the Azaires' house to stay while conducting some work abroad. Whilst there, he embarks on an affair with the young wife of his host, Isabelle, and the two decide to run away together to start a life of their own. However, once away from the Azaire household, Isabelle begins to feel guilty for her actions, and consequently the relationship ceases. Fast forward six years into the future, and Stephen has enlisted himself in the Army, finding himself on the front line. Thus commences a powerful tale of endurance and life as we simply could not imagine now.

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      My thoughts
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      This novel would have, indeed, should have, received 5* from me. The scenes of war described by Sebastian Faulks are vivid, gritty and thoroughly gruesome at times. I was transported to a time that is unimaginable, into conditions that I could not fathom and disgusted me. Faulks managed to paint a human picture of life in the trenches; these were men who were accustomed to seeing death all too often. They became hardened to it, despaired at it. The quote used to title this review summarised, for me, Faulks' intentions in writing this novel; Faulks attempted to ensure that readers did not forget the individuals who experienced such hell. Through the various minor characters such as Jack Firebrace and Michael Weir, as well as Stephen's own experiences of war, Faulks reminds us that each individual soldier had his own history and his own story to tell. It is easy, perhaps, for us to learn passively about war in classrooms, or through documentaries. However, Faulks forces us to confront the humanity of the people who fought, and to relive the conditions within which they existed. So powerful are the descriptions of war and the day to day toil within the trenches that, were the novel based solely on the aspects of war alone, I would rate it 5*. However, this is not so.

      I do not think that the love affair between Stephen and Isabelle was, itself, unnecessary in the novel. In fact, the contrast between the passionate elation felt between the lovers and the stark, despairing thoughts Stephen endures in the trenches only emphasises the brutality of war. Indeed, the descriptive powers of Faulks excellently demonstrates the humanity of these two individuals, overcome with lust for each other. As a reader, I willed their relationship to succeed. Thus, the emotive power of their affair definitely impacted the story well.

      However, the one aspect that did disrupt the overall success of this novel, in my opinion, was the occasional flash forwards to the 1970s. In these short sections, Elizabeth, who is later revealed as Stephen's granddaughter (although this is painfully obvious to all reading), for no apparent reason, is suddenly intent on discovering what it was to fight in WWI. Among her own personal relationship problems, she embarks on a journey to uncover the truth about her grandfather. These sections were, I believe, intended by Faulks as a way to nudge the conscience of the reader, and to emphasise the fact that we should not forget about our own ancestors who may have fought in the war, and their individual stories. While I can see why he included her in the novel, I felt her sections simply interrupted what was otherwise an engaging story. Her own plot line was more akin to something in the chick lit genre, and felt out of place compared to the stark graphic descriptions of war. Indeed, perhaps Faulks meant it as a way in which to give the reader respite from the heavy main plot line. However, if so, I felt it was unnecessary and an annoyance.

      For that reason, I am giving Birdsong 4*. 1970s flash forwards aside, this novel is certainly worth picking up for an engaging and powerful experience of life in WWI. Thoroughly recommended.

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        14.02.2011 22:47

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        a must- read, simple as.

        Birdsong is undoubtedly the best book I have ever read. If I could only recommend you read one book in your lifetime, it would be this.
        And what is it about Birdsong that is so good?
        1. the obvious, the way it is written - the storytelling. Sebastian Faulks has done brilliantly. He has successfully captured what so many writers, tv shows, films have failed to do so.
        2. the emotion. the only book to ever bring me to tears.
        3. the sheer power behind the words. never has a book had such an effect on me.
        4. again, the way it is written - different characters perspectives make this all the more fantastic.

        I recommend this book to anybody who has a soft spot for war accounts, or simply loves reading. And especially to those for which both apply. I recently read 'private peaceful' and it was nothing but a disappointment compared to Birdsong, which I hope to read again soon. I really hope they (whoever 'they' are) get round to making it into a film!

        enjoy.

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        07.06.2010 20:33
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        If there is a book to read before you die, this is it!

        Having been given this book to read at the start of my A-Level course, I thought the prospect of reading about WW1 would be truly depressing experience. Contrary to my expectations, this novel is without a doubt, the best book I have ever read. The mixture of love, comradeship and terror all lends themselves to a compelling read.

        The story begins when Stephen Wraysford, the stories protagonist, travels to a French town called Amiens in 1910 to visit a textile factory owned by Rene Azaire. Whilst staying with the family, Stephen becomes involved in a passionate affair with Isabelle, Rene's wife. The couple eventually run away and after finding out that she is pregnant, Isabelle's guilty conscience sends her running away to stay with her sister, Jeanne, before eventually returning to Amiens.

        The story then jumps forward to 1916 where Stephen faces the terror of the Somme as a Lieutenant in the British Army. As the novel continues to jump through time, the reader becomes enthralled by Stephen's struggle in the trenches, his relationships with Michael Weir and Jack Firebrace and his determination to find his long lost love, Isabelle.

        Regardless of whether or not you are interested in war literature, this is a must read. As fiction as it is, the message is powerful and the struggle and adversity which faces Stephen and the other men in the trenches is brought to life in this wonderful novel by Sebastian Faulks.

        If you're looking for something new and moving, this is the book for you.

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        06.04.2010 18:15
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        Hard to put into words, just amazing

        I realise there are already many reviews o fthis book but I just had to put my two penneth in as this is, without a shadow of a doubt, my favourite book of all time.
        I'll be honest, I do often judge a book by it's cover and I would never have picked this book up if it hadn't been that my mum had it & told me to read it. I protested as the very idea of reading a book about the war bored me, but she insisted and I'm so glad she did!
        From the very first chapter I found the story completely engaging and the more the book went on the more I felt like I had actually lived through this story with the main character - quite amazing I feel seesing as this is a work of fiction.
        Stephen is a young soldier in WW1 and the story begins in France. Not only is this a story of his experiences in the war but it has a love story woven through it, in fact this is a big part of the story and not just thrown in for good measure. I really found parts of this book heart wrenching and it is fair to say I cried more than once.
        The way the writer accounts the time 'Stephen' spent in the trenches, the horrors he saw in Mametz wood during the Battle Of The Somme, the loss of lives, the dark times, the lonliness, the longing, the feelings and emotions is simply exceptional.
        The detail is incredible. I am not a fan of overly descriptive flowery written novels where the writer spends half their time telling you what shade of blue the sky was; Faulks manages to describe each scene beautifully without boring you.
        He must have researched this book incredibly well and must have studied real accounts of being in the trenches and going through all these amazing yet terrible experiences. He makes fiction feel like reality and for that I applaud him. I now feel I know more of what those brave soldiers went through and it has compelled me to make the time to find out more.
        I urge anyone and everyone to give this book a try, it will stay with you forever.

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        13.03.2010 16:33
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        A beautiful piece of writing

        This book was listed as one of the 100 books to read before you die by the BBC, a list I am slowly working my way through. I had previously read Charlotte Gray (part of this series) and quite liked it, but this book is it's superior by far.

        It follows a young man, Stephen who has a passionate but disasterous love affair with the mistress of the house he is boarding in in France, and then travels with him to the very belly of the beast of the First World War. Stephen is a very cold character and deals with the terrible atrocities he witnesses in a strange but compelling way. In the third section of the book, his grand-daughter learns more about him and eventually mirrors his life choices.

        The writing is just incredible, and built up the characters very slowly, but very well. I felt the main protagonist was a well rounded character, he had faults but you also had empathy with him. The section about the war was amazing in it's detail and really brought home how terrible it must have been with the matter of fact way it was described. I didn't know about the tunnels under no man's land and this made me want to find out a lot more about the period. The climax, even though it was quite far fetched was still gripping and it was one of those books that I couldn't put down, even when there was things I should be getting on with!

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          18.02.2010 00:07

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          An engaging read

          It has good bits, it has bad bits. Yes it's a novel. However it's good bits vastly outweigh it's bad bits. I had to read this to write a piece of coursework on, however upon completing it, in a much quicker time than I anticipated. I found I had pleasantly enjoyed it. It works for either a hardcore reader, or only a casual one, it doesn't matter, anyone who reads it can find enjoyment within it's pages.

          The imagery Faulks' uses in the war scenes are really vivid, I can not compare this to other war novels, as I haven't read many, but I can say that I imagine it to be up their with the best. These scenes are, probably, in a class of their own. If there are any better, I'd be pleasantly surprised.

          However the scenes set in 1970's England are poor in comparison with me, and many of my classmates, finding them dull and unneeded, I suppose Faulks' included them to make his novel seem more rounded, yes it did this, but it could have been done more effectively.

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          23.01.2010 19:03
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          Deffinaly a book to read if only so you can judge it your self.

          Birdsong is primary concerned with the themes of; war, death, love and the human conditions. The narrative tends to jump around during the novel and is split into several parts - personaly found this quite iritating towards the end as it never alowed for me to fully submerge my self in the tone of writing. Another issue with the division of the book is that I feel that is never truely reaches its potential. I understand what Faulks is trying to say here, and I commend him as he set him self a difficult task, I just feel like he never truely sucseeds, some what like a piramid missing its pinicle. On another note a novels primary objective is to enterain, and here he sucseeds. IT is most certainly worth the read and will make you question your self, it even induced a few tears along the way. However, and I put this at the end of my review; Faulks interpritation of sex are purely comical and detrive from the meaning of those passages between Stephen and Isabell ,this is my primary gripe about the novel. Would class it as a life changing novel, perhaps, maybe a second read will allow me to truely judge it on this matter.

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            21.08.2009 13:52
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            An excellent novel!

            This is an outstanding novel. The quality of Sebastian Faulks' writing is brilliant, and the story kept me engrossed to the (almost) final page (see below). While the novel is not flawless as an introduction to literature about WW1 this is a brilliant novel.

            The story follows Stephen Wraysford from being a young man having a passionate love affair while working in France to his enlisitng and service in WW1 as an officer. Of particular note in this novel are the passages which follow the 'sappers', the miners who laid explosives under the German trenches and the conditions they faced. Faulks' skill really comes out here. The story is followed right through to to the somewhat depressing conclusion of Stephen's life. While it is disappointing what Faulks brilliantly conveys is that veterans of this war did not live out their lives after the war as heroes but more as men who struggled to adapt.

            While I loved the passages of the story which followed Stephen's story for me the biggest flaw in the novel is when Faulks introduces the 1970s character Elizabeth, Stephen's granddaughter. I found this unsatifactory, and felt her banal and (relatively) frivolous concerns served not to enhance Stephen's story but detract from it.

            However, there is much still to love about this book. Some of the characters are expertly crafted - the physically imposing but sentimental Jack, the vulnerable Weir and Stephen himself particularly grabbed me. Some of the imagery in the book is also brilliant - the red theme which runs through from the red room in the French house, to the blood in the trenches and the blood of childbirth at the novel's conclusion there is beautiful symmetry and poetry in the impications of the red of love, death and birth.

            All in all this is one of my favourite novels. While it isn't perfect it is outstanding. It says it all that I first read this book for my A Level exams, and have re-read it several times since and each time found something new to appreciate.

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            06.12.2008 23:10
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            A painful life before and after WW1's trenches

            This is a wide ranging novel, whose overall theme would seem to be that there is no end to what men can endure. Throughout the novel, pain and fear are the dominant feelings; mud and blood are the prominent visuals. Although this is typically considered a great novel, I am not convinced that I enjoyed reading this novel, because I, personally, prefer a different style of writing.

            Stephen Wraysford is a young man visiting Amiens, France in 1910 at the start of the novel. Soon, he becomes enthralled by the wife of his host, a young woman trapped in a loveless, passionless marriage, and the first part of the novel is concerned with their passionate journey together. The relationship develops so swiftly as to be almost unbelievable and none of the characters comes across as particularly likeable, despite the sad back stories the lovers are given by Faulkes.

            Soon the action moves to the trenches in France where Jack Firebrace, a miner, is listening intently to discover whether his men are in imminent danger from an attack underground. Stephen is later discovered as a cold officer, prepared to see a man executed for exhaustion. This is presumably intended to show us how war has hardened him, but the sudden switch between characters and cares makes the novel feel disjointed.

            Throughout the rest of the novel, the action moves between the lives of several characters, at different points in their lives, all of whom are connected to Stephen and Isabelle's legacy. The main action takes place in the trenches as Stephen participates in the battle of the Somme, which is strongly evoked through the sparse but telling use of detail. The way men die is told in a straightforward, almost understated manner that emphasises the hideousness of the massacre. The reactions of other men are equally telling: they become, at last, almost indifferent to fear, death and dying.

            If you are interested in the First World War then this novel will allow you to experience its horror and reflect on our own generation's near-indifference to history and sacrifice. The descriptions of sex and violence are graphic in places and this could never be classified as a 'light read'; it may move you to tears. It deals with the psychology of the characters far more than plot, so will be more suitable for those who enjoy reading D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf.

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              05.11.2008 00:28
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              A fantastic book to analyse but not the best book to read.

              This review contains an in depth analysis of the plot, and for that reason, if you do not want to know what happens in this book do not read the plot section. However if you are studying this book you will find this resource useful; you are my target audience and will benefit most from this review.

              Birdsong is a Novel written by Sebastian Faulks. It came thirteenth in the 'Big read' which was a survey carried out to find Britain's favourite book. It is set against the backdrop of war and is a tragic love affair mixed with death, despair and futility.

              The Plot (does contain spoilers):

              The novel is broken up into seven sections. And begins in France 1910. Stephen Wraysford is on a business trip to learn about the manufacturing process at a factory run by René Azaire, and stays with the Azaire family. During his stay Stephen falls in love with his hosts wife Isabelle. The reader soon learns that René is embarrassed by his inability to father a child and beats Isabelle out of frustration.
              Stephen and Isabelle have a passionate affair and as a result Isabelle leaves René Azaire and runs away with Stephen only to later realise that she is living a lie. She is uncertain as to how Stephen would react to the news that she is pregnant, and leaves him as well. She turns to her sister Jeanne for support and eventually returns to René Azaire and the Azaire family after encouragement by her father.
              Later we learn that René is taken by the German soldiers and held hostage, we also learn that Isabelle runs off with a German soldier named Max and takes her daughter (Francoise) with her.

              France 1916; In this chapter we join Stephen as a lieutenant in the British army. Stephens character is hardened by war and contrasts with the emotional boy portrayed in the first chapter.
              Stephens story is paralleled with Jack Firebrace, a miner employed in the British trenches to listen for mines, dig tunnels and listen for opposing German tunnels. Jack fights because of the love for his son john, who is back home.
              Stephen is injured in this chapter but survives and returns to the front lines.
              In this chapter he also writes to Isabelle (because he has no one else to confide in). He tells her of his fear of death, and confesses that he has only ever loved her.

              England 1978; In this chapter we are introduced to Elizabeth, a descendant of Stephen, She finds Stephens journals and endeavours to decipher them. Elizabeth is in a relationship with a gentleman named Robert, a married man, and falls pregnant with his child.

              France 1917; Weir goes on leave and visits his family but finds it difficult to communicate and socialise with them because of his traumatic affair during the war.
              Stephen meets with Isabelle and finds that her face has been disfigured by a shell, he also discovers that she is in a relationship with the German soldier Max.
              Stephen then takes leave and visit's the scenic countryside in Norfolk, away from the trenches.
              He returns to France early to visit Isabelle's sister Jeanne. Stephen seeks comfort in Jeanne and eventually this leads to a relationship between them. While visiting he tells her that he does not want to return to the front lines, she comforts him and asks him to do it for her.
              The chapter ends with the death of Stephens closest friend Weir (a fellow soldier). The conversation they shared before his death ended in an argument, and Stephen feels guilty for his impatience towards Weir. Weir is killed by a snipers bullet, this is a result of the sand bags not being properly replaced (from where they have been bombarded).

              England 1978-79; In this chapter Elizabeth continues her research into the war and Stephens life. She speaks to Gray and Brennan, soldiers that served with Stephen.

              France 1918; This chapter is all about Stephen and Jack being trapped below ground. Jack perishes, however Stephen is rescued by a German soldier named Levi. Levi is Jewish, which is of high significance. This chapter is clearly inspired by Wilfred Owens 1918 poem 'strange meeting'. The Germans (at the time) claimed that Jews were not allowed to serve in the war due to their religion. This is a clear rebellion against such a claim (and also relates to WW2 when Jews were slaughtered on a mass scale in concentration camps).

              England 1979; This is the final chapter of the book and is a heart warming ending (which is crucial considering how tragic the book is).
              Elizabeth reveals her pregnancy to her mother who is surprisingly supportive. Elizabeth learns that her mother (Francoise) was raised by Stephen and Jeanne, who married and settled in Norfolk. Elizabeth died of a flu epidemic, which is the reason why Francoise was returned to Jeanne and Stephen.

              Elizabeth and Stephen go on holiday, during which Elizabeth gives birth and names the newborn John. In doing so she keeps a promise Stephen made to Jack. To name one of his children after Jacks.

              Things to consider when writing an essay on Birdsong:

              Stephen was an orphan and was raised by a guardian. It is arguable that Stephen sought love in Isabelle's arms because of the lack of love in his childhood. Both characters can be seen as emotionally damaged, Isabelle through René and being beaten and Stephen through the lack of parents, this can also be put forward as a reason for their affair.

              The use of tunnelling in the book could be tied with the theme of birth. Every time Stephen goes underground and returns his emotions change (the rebirth of his emotions).

              There is also a sense of foreshadowing in the death and birth of children in the book. Isabelle gives birth to Stephens daughter and he survives, however Jacks son John dies and then he does also.

              You can also argue that Faulks mirrors Stephens emotions in Isabelle and her welfare. Just after learning about Isabelle's face being disfigured by a shell Stephen has an emotional breakdown which is caused by the traumatic effect of the war.

              Personally I would also argue that Stephen is able to confide in Jeanne because of her similarities with Isabelle. And for the fact that he has no one else to confide in.

              Weirs death is amazingly short and very sudden. It quite literally lasts for a paragraph, and is caused by an accident rather than an attack or bombardment. You could argue that Weirs death shows the cruel reality of trench warfare and that his death is used to display the pointless and unnecessary death caused by the war.

              The German soldier being Jewish is of high significance and most definitely needs some form of analysis if your writing an essay. At the time it was claimed that Jews were not allowed to fight, but in truth 12 000 did. It would also be useful to read Wilfred Owens 'strange meeting' which is the basis of this part of the book.

              There are a lot of things which can be analysed in this book which is why it is quite often chosen for A level English literature. There are also many themes that run through it such as love, hope and despair, futility, war (of course), comradeship, loneliness and so on. The list of themes really is massive, so there is plenty of choice as to what to make the essay question about. The relationships on the book is one of the easiest because of the wide variety of relationship there is.

              Personally I found reading this book rather boring, as it is very long winded and takes a long time to establish the points Faulks is trying to put across. However when analysing the book is when I started to see just how amazing it really is. There are hundreds of things which can be analysed and written about extremely easily, and quotes are easily found as all themes are constantly reinforced.

              To conclude I think the book could be better written, but it is when you analyse the book in depth that you realise how much of a genius Faulks really is. The relationships all have underlying meanings and the themes are heavily reinforced making it easy to write about. All in all its perfect for essay writing, and I near guarantee that you will find it easy to write about.

              Birdsong is currently available for £4.99 on amazon.co.uk.

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                15.08.2008 15:48

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                This was recommended to me by several people and all I can say is: What a terrible book. I have never been so bored in my life. Historically inaccurate (re: the relationships between elisted men and officers) and the descriptions of the battles and life in the trenches have been lifted from the reference tome 'My Big Book Of WW1 Cliches'.The characters are dull, the descriptive passages contrived and some of the passages made me laugh out loud (but not in a good way), and at the end I couldn't care less what happened to ANY of the characters.I beg you: Please Don't Read This Book.

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                05.08.2008 15:04
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                A powerful and moving book.

                There have been many books about the First World War, but Birdsong is one of the best I have read.

                A few years ago, I was asked to curate an online exhibition of letters home from soldiers who had fought in the First World War, including some that had eventually fallen at Ypres and the Somme. I had to read many heart-wrenching letters that highlighted the awful drabness of life in the trenches, punctuated by moments of extreme, disabling horror.

                The ennervating effect of life under fire, in a state of almost constant terror, is captured with absolute authenticity by Faulks in this book, and there are many grim passages. The indomatibility of the human spirit is the main theme, however, and Faulks has woven a beautiful, uplifiting narrative from the grisliest of cloth.

                All is not doom and gloom, though, and the book is framed by two supplementary narratives, the first, at the opening of the book, is the story of the main character, Stephen Wraysford's, affair with the wife of a local factory owner with whom he is lodging - and these passages burn with an erotic intensity which never descends into coarseness.

                The second narrative, interwoven with the WWI soldiers story, is set in 1978 and follows a young woman, Elizabeth Benson, trapped in an unhappy, dissatisfying love affair with a married man, who begins to trace the history of her grandfather.

                There are several other engaging characters, including Jack Firebrace, an expert trenchbuilder, who slowly builds up a friendship with Wraysford, despite thier different ranks and classes.

                The final passages of the book are amongst the most poignant and moving that I have ever read, and the convergence of the the various threads of the story are both convincing and satisfying.

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                12.09.2007 15:00
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                Well worth a read if, after you have read historical accounts you are lacking some WW1 humanity

                I bought this book mainly because I am keen on warfare and its effect on people etc etc. This is the first novel I'd read on the first world war having read a couple of historical accounts etc which were good from a battle point of view and knowing what went on but were short on emotional impact I thought.

                The first 100 pages were not what I was expecting and is set in France in 1910 when an Englishman by the name of Stephen is sent by his textile factory to come to France and learn new things about the business. He is housed by the family of a factory owner and falls in love with the owners wife.

                The story follows the twists and turns of Stephen's life through his love affair and into the first world war where he is a commander. The book is a novel so it is hard to know where Faulks has used fiction in his descriptions and where he has used interviews/research but some of the war passages are tremendously impacting and some of the descriptions of injuries etc are quite horrifying.

                Subsequent to the first passage about the war the story switches between Stephen in the war and the hunt by his granddaughter (set in the 1970s) for information about the war. The two eventually coming together at the end of the novel.

                At times the story jumps around a bit and is hard to keep in context but I was moved by it in ways that I didn't think were possible having read a fair amount about war.

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                11.10.2006 11:52
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                Don't waste your time...and if you do, skip the extra 200 pages.

                I picked up Birdsong with great anticipation. I'd heard wonderful things from many people - sadly I have never been so bitterly disappointed in my life. The descriptions, whilst detailed in depicting trench warfare, are contrived and clunky. The section of the book set in the 1970s is laughable - adding nothing of worth to the narrative; it is merely 200 pages of time wasting. Skipping these chapters will not harm the readers understanding of the novel. The romance within the book is also nothing special. I cared nothing for the characters and Faulks' 'sex scene' is one of the most hysterically funny things I've read in a long time. Not erotic at all.

                Despite its great praise and approval, I would not recommend Birdsong to anyone. A week of my life I cannot get back.

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                  25.05.2006 19:21
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                  In conclusion, i think that Birdsong can teach people of all ages a valuable lesson.

                  Birdsong is the most addictive book i have ever read. I have read it over and over again, and would reccomend it to anyone.
                  If i could change one thing in the Highschool coriculum in England it would be that all pupils would read this book in year 11. I read it in year nine on a trip to France with school and it really opened my eyes.
                  I was once oblivious to the suffering and sheer horror of war, but reading Birdsong really made me think. I used to imagine the battlefields of the Somme in history lessons, but after reading Birdsong i realised that anyone who understands the true horrors of war cannot even begin to imagine the Battlefields they were fought in.
                  Birdsong is not only about the great war though, it also contains a love story of passion and loss. One which captivated my imagination and one that makes you continue to turn pages to see if the main character, Stephen, ever finds true happiness.
                  I may only be 16 but i think that Birdsong should be compulasary in Education as Shakespear is, it is a true classic that could captivate even a teenage reader and can teach a valuable lesson about the suffering in people's lives and their will to survive.

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                • Product Details

                  Set before and during the great war, 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 experiences of the war itself.