Since I had gotten the impression (from reading bits and pieces about Trevor Nunn’s stage version and from the Birdsong read-along) that Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, was a WWI novel, I was surprised to pick it up and find myself in the spring of 1910 with a young couple named Stephen and Isabelle who are falling in love under the noses of her much older husband and two teenage step-children. It wasn’t clear to me who the protagonist of this third-person narrated novel was going to be until the connecting thread of all the stories turned out to be Stephen.
The memories of his love affair with Isabelle are what sustain Stephen as a young officer in the trenches and tunnels of the war, working with men like Jack Firebrace, a tunneller who falls asleep while standing a watch he should never have been responsible for and who Stephen castigates in the heat of the moment but later offers a cup of tea to when he reports, expecting to be court-martialled and shot. This is one of the first scenes in which we meet the war-time Stephen, and as the war goes on, the scenes of it get more and more harrowing, until it’s impossible to imagine any human feeling surviving; with “half of England” on the field pictured like “corn through which the wind is passing” because “when the machine guns found them, they rippled” the few survivors, Stephen among them, are unalterably changed.
About halfway through the novel, we begin to find out more about a modern character named Elizabeth, who “liked living alone, she liked being alone.” As she moves towards making more human contact, however, her storyline reaches the point where she finds out that Stephen is one of her ancestors. Isabelle’s storyline begins to move away from Stephen’s as he returns to the front and begins writing to her sister, Jeanne.
One of the most evocative parts of the descriptions of the horrors of war—even more than the death and blood and claustrophobia and dirt in the tunnels—is the description of the irritation of the lice, which “proved more wearing to [one character] even than the sound of heavy guns or the fear of dying.” Stories about a leave when Stephen scratched himself all the time without even knowing it, and about one day when the men had their clothes fumigated and got a tub bath followed by being issued clean shirts and underwear were particularly horrifying, as “by the time they had reached their billets Jack felt the first irritation on his skin. Within three hours the heat of his body as he marched had hatched the eggs of hundreds of lice that had lain dormant in the seams of his shirt. By the time he reached the Front his skin was alive with them.”
There’s a scene with a soldier who has to gather up the parts of his fallen brother and is grateful that he was able to: “I found him, that’s the thing. I didn’t let him lie there. I got him back and now he’ll have a proper burial. There’ll be a grave that people can see.”
On leave in London, Stephen is puzzled at the way he is treated; “he did not know if he smelled of chloride or lime or blood or rats….He marveled at the smoothness of the undamaged paving stones. He was glad that an ordinary life persisted in the capital, but he did not feel part of it….it seemed strange to him that his presence was a matter not just of indifference but of resentment.” The man he is closest to in the war, Weir, has experienced a similar distancing from his English family, who seem to not want to know anything about what he has endured. Ultimately, the survivors of the war respond with absolute silence, and the novel’s suggestion is that there’s no one left who could possibly understand anything about the way they see the world.
As she finds out more about the war, Elizabeth, the modern character, also begins to look more closely at her own life and is “struck, not for the first time, by the thought that her life was entirely frivolous,” intimating that even if a few people understand a bit of the immensity of what happened to Stephen and others like him, it’s difficult to live with that understanding from moment to moment. I think that maybe the title is related to a current expression that means silence, “crickets.” Birdsong. What you hear when people and their machinery are still.
The way Stephen breaks his two years of literal silence after the war is telling: he “quite suddenly stood up at the breakfast table and smiled. He said, ‘We’re going to the theatre in London tonight.’” Because, after all, being with people and watching them act out stories about fictional characters is a way of restoring a little bit of faith in humanity, or at least interest in the way they live. The ending makes me especially sad I haven’t seen the play adapted by Rachel Wagstaff, with Ben Barnes, who Faulks has said is uncannily close to the picture in his head when he wrote the character of Stephen, playing him. There has been a BBC television series and there will be a feature-length movie made from the novel, which switches points of view in a way the author has described as “filmic.”
It’s hard to tell if this will be a movie that makes Faulks’ story as famous for Americans as it is for Britons, but it is a story that needs a wider audience. After all, when much of the population of a country is stunned into silence, the silence itself is stunning.