I want to discuss the novel, so there will be SPOILERS as I summarize the second half of the book.
by Sebastian Faulks
Where to begin? Let’s catch up on the rest of the book first.
Part Three: England 1978
We travel forward to the ‘70s where we meet Stephen’s granddaughter, Elizabeth Benson, a successful business woman embroiled in an affair with a married man. She begins to research her grandfather’s time in World War I after finding some of his journals.
Part Four: France 1917:
Back in France we see Stephen return to the small town where he met Isabelle. While there he stumbles across her sister Jeanne and then eventually meets up with Isabelle. She is both physically and emotionally changed; scarred by the war and in love with another man. Stephen soon finds himself corresponding with Jeanne after saying his goodbyes with Isabelle.
Back at the front Weir is once again terrified of what the future will bring. In one scene he tries to say a preemptive goodbye to Stephen in case anything should happen to them and Stephen rebuffs him. Stephen is so cold and dismissive, but he obviously acts that way because he can’t stand the thought of losing someone else he loves. Weir is killed before Stephen can apologize.
Part Five: England 1978-79:
We’re back with Elizabeth as she learns about WW I. A few blind dates, attempts to break Stephen’s journaling code and then an unexpected pregnancy leave her life in turmoil.
Part Six: France 1918
Our finally section with Stephen is so painful to read I could hardly stand it. He and Jack Firebrace find themselves trapped underground after a regular inspection of the tunnels goes awry. The two men take solace in each other, talking about their lives and their loves as they try to dig their way out. Then Jack dies and once again my heart broke. Stephen is found by German soldiers who are grieving the loss of their own men and in that moment it doesn’t matter what color their uniforms are, they are brothers in grief.
Part Seven: England 1979
Elisabeth, pregnant with her child, learns the truth behind her mother’s parentage. She is the daughter of Stephen and Isabelle, but was raised by Stephen and Jeanne. When Elizabeth has her baby, naming him John after her Jack Firebrace’s son who died too young, she brings the story full circle, new life balancing death.
The final few chapters are so intense. The whole book feels like it lopes along at a steady pace, then in those final 100 pages there is just such an overwhelming feeling of both joy and sorrow. There’s a constant give and take: Stephen lives, but Jack dies, Elizabeth has a baby, but Jack looses his son. The balance of the destruction and devastation of war is pitted against the enduring nature of love, especially that between a parent and a child. I've never read something that pairs the two so beautifully.
It's not a light read, but it is enthralling. About 3/4 of the way in I wasn't sure how I felt about the book, I really wasn’t loving it, but that final section just moved me. I felt the loss of Weir and Firebrace deeply and my heart went out to Stephen who will always struggle with the guilt of surviving.
In my opinion this book will probably elicit a strong response from anyone who reads it. I think many people would hate it. It’s too slow-going in the beginning, it drastically changes format, from a love story to a war story, there are some unnecessary characters (like that guy Elizabeth was sort of dating in Part Five), there are descriptions of sex that are distasteful at best, etc. And while all of those things affected my reading experience, the thing that I walked away with in the end was an incredibly powerful picture of trench life in WWI and the lifelong impact of friendships born during wartime. The desperation and fear of the men being overwhelmed by their bravery in the crucial moment, the neglect of later generations to learn about and appreciate all that was done for them by soldiers who fought for their country; that is what I will remember.
BOTTOM LINE: It is a flawed novel, but one that left me reeling with its realistic portrayal of war. It is one of very few war novels that I can say impacted me deeply on an emotional level. Don’t expect perfection, but try it if it sounds interesting to you.
“A sense of interest was beginning to penetrate the blankness of his grief; it was like the first, painful sensations of blood returning to a numbed limb.”
Here are a few other reviews, both positive and negative, of the book:
When you post your final thoughts leave a link in the comments and I’ll add them to this list.
p.s. I watched the Masterpiece mini-series of Birdsong and it was actually pretty good. They mixed everything together, so instead of getting the story in chunks, we saw much of it through flashbacks, but it worked. They also introduced Jeanne much sooner and tok the character of Elizabeth out entirely, but I think it worked pretty well.