It’s impossible not to compare this astoundingly good book with the stupendous literary achievement that is Pat Barker’s Reformation Trilogy, which really is the benchmark for writing about the First World War.
Until recently, the Great War has always played second fiddle to World War Two, both educationally and creatively (how many WW1 films can you name?) due perhaps to the certainties that the second great conflagration presents.
You have definite good guys and bad guys, whereas the 1914-18 War asks far too many nasty questions about humanity and it’s motivations. And it all seems so completely and utterly futile, a real Book of Revelations Apocalyptic Slaughter.
“ If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori. “
This is an extract from Wilfred Owen and is the evidence from someone who was there, who fought in War and saw the shattered bodies and tortured minds up close and personal. Reality. Not the nebulous concept referred to in the last couplet.
And Faulks really gets this across as we follow the main protagonist, Stephen, as he takes his journey from callow, philandering salesman seducing another man’s wife, to literally becoming a shell of a man having his humanity simply ground out of him by the daily mass roll call of death.
Throughout we ask; Why? Why? What reduces men to such degradation, to the extent that they feel nothing, and still accept what is being done to them? Just sheer, blind obedience.
Truly unbelievable. We all have a self-preservation motive as part of what makes us human. Where does it go?
In the trenches, on the Eastern Front, at Auschwitz, during Pol Pot’s Dark Age in Cambodia. Darfur, Screbenica, Iraq, the list goes on and on and on….. seemingly without end as we continue to find ways and means to behave with complete amoral barbarism, as though the part of our collective brain that registers revulsion has been removed.
We first encounter Stephen in 1912 as he is learning the rag trade as an English sales rep in Northern France.
The character is a complex and interesting individual, having being abandoned, placed in care and then rescued by a Gladstonian philanthropist, but I would have liked to hear more detail and anecdotes from his formative years to place him in a better context, on the one hand bold, deeply passionate and sexual, on the other almost diffident and conformist when we meet him again in khaki. In addition he is of the Officer Class and seemingly erudite and well educated, again not satisfactorily explained.
Faulk’s handling of his affair with a married woman combines commentary on the social and class set up of Edwardian Europe on the one hand and the raw emotions and feelings that overwhelm the couple despite the obvious pitfalls of the time on the other, and is as a superb piece of erotic writing as you will find.
Contrast then with the author’s searing descriptions of the Somme and battles that follow it.
Meticulous research of the military issues allied to the human story, just spot on. Horror upon horror tempered with touches of real humanity, as the old Sixties song revived by Bruce Springsteen asks; “War, what is it really good for? Absolutely nothing”.
We get to meet, mostly in passing, plenty of interesting characters to offset Stephen and give him a sense of place and time, especially Jack Firebrace with whom Our Hero finds himself in the most difficult situations wrought with moral dilemmas.
Faulks intertwines the war story with Stephen’s granddaughter’s attempts to find out more about him sixty years down the line. The motivation, I suppose is to put the Great War in a modern context but for me is doesn’t work because the character is one-dimensional and we don’t get to spend enough time with her.
There’s a feeling she is there as a vehicle for an idea rather than written about in her own right. Additionally there is an oh so predictable “twist” at the end which is a bit groan worthy.
It’s not fair to really compare with the peerless Barker so I’ll end with a quote from Simon Schama which sums up my feelings on this book; “Birdsong is not a perfect novel, just a great one”.