Kiril Sokoloff, with whom I have exchanged book notes now and then, is the renowned writer of “13D”, a widely-respected monthly analysis of world financial trends, and one of the most and prodigious readers and laconic writers on our planet, and a fellow-devotee of Roberts’ modern classic, Shantaram. Kiril was kind enough to give me Birdsong. While I much appreciated his gesture, I did not share all of his enthusiasm for Birdsong, but, considering Kiril’s intellect, Birdsong merits attention.
The novel spans three generations, from WWI to the present. It is a story of war, love and tragedy. Faulks’ descriptions reveal an admirably microscopic eye for detail, research and a memory of daunting depth, which often keeps the reader transfixed. There, for me, however, ended the joy of this journey. Faulks’ dialogue seems often awkward and affected. A key plot deals with a clothing factory, about which the author reveals no firsthand experience, and despite his study of it, there is something contrived about it. Well over half of the text dwells on the morbid details of WWI, in the trenches, the bloody, rotting bodies and other macabre aspects of it, and an obsession with death, “the long darkness of death” (an obsession common to so many writers – and readers, apparently). Combined with the sometimes stilted dialogue, it has the ring of fiction, not reality. Great fiction is generally grounded in autobiography to one degree or another, not so with Birdsong. Also, his grammar is marred by prepositional endings, run-on sentences, etc. Oddly, he often begins his dialogue, “Stephen said…”, halting the flow of ideas, rather than adding it after the thought or phrasing it so that the identity of the speaker is apparent. Faulks needs a playwright to help move his dialogue along.
To compound these burdens, Faulks’ characters do things that seem improbable: for example, at age 20 and while on a picnic, his lead character, Stephen Wraysford, devotes his luncheon thoughts to the earth’s ultimate absorption of everyone present. Who, at age 20, has such dark thoughts and concerns about mortality, and at a picnic that is peopled by lovely young girls and other entertaining companions? Then, not long thereafter, Faulks has Stephen immersed in a torrid love scene with Isabella (who was also at the picnic), with lurid details rivaling a trash novel; and, during this intercourse, the characters’ dialogue doesn’t fit the occasion or people of their respective ages; e.g., Stephen triumphantly concludes their love-making by saying, “It was the right thing to do.” But is making love to another man’s wife ever “the right thing to do”? Whatever would this 20-year-old character know or care about it? Isn’t it more likely that he simply didn’t care and wouldn’t it be more realistic to conclude that he “let the wrong head do his thinking”? The author offers no logic to support his speculative conclusion, and the statement would only compound the guilt that Isabella likely felt. Then, Isabella leaves her husband to be with Stephen, and, within a year or so thereafter, she abandons Stephen with no explanation or even a parting note; how realistic is that? Later, the author suggests that it was her guilt that drove her away. Is that reasonable? Stephen continues to love Isabella to his dying breath, regardless; while such a deep love is fathomable (but rarely in one so young), can it survive total abandonment and do so forever? On balance, the unbelievable characters, affected dialogue, disruptive grammar and fabricated plots have the ring of contrivance and soon bored this reader to tears.
Sebastian Faulks was a journalist for 14 years, until he began writing novels fulltime. Published in 1993, Birdsong was his second and best known novel and still sells briskly. He is enormously successful and lives in London with his wife and two children. His success remains a mystery to me.