Birdsong’s cover advertises it as a “novel of love and war.” Cliched, but true enough. Faulk’s work has an odd feel about it for a modern (1993) work. With its omniscient narrator, constantly shifting pov, descriptive and narrative side trips, it seems almost Victorian. There is a visionary passage of unity of all creation that might have been pulled straight out of Thomas Hardy. Yet, a more accurate parallel might be with D.H. Lawrence for some of its torrid, protoplasmic sex and violence. Indeed, the war scenes, especially in part two, are among the most brutal I have ever read. I thought after all I had read about WWI over the last couple of years, I knew it all. However, Birdsong opened an entirely new aspect to me–the lives of the miners who tunneled underneath enemy lines planting explosives. Gives a literal meaning to the word “mine,” and I understand where the word comes from now. I don’t know why I’m getting this late deluge of WWI books at this stage in my life. I’m not seeking them out. Must mean something. I’ll have to consult my guru, I guess.
All that aside, this is a powerful book. It’s full of surprises, not just plot twists, but turns of character and emphasis. Things that seem to matter, suddenly do not. For example, the protagonist begins apparently intent on learning the textile business. Then that industry turns out to be of no consequence at all either to him or to the story. He is a serious, focused man, but capable of changing direction in an emotional minute. He is by nature, it seems, a detached person, an observer more than a participant. Yet, he is capable of giving himself completely to a situation or a moment regardless of consequences. It is that mystery of character that kept me turning the pages more than the drive to find out “what happens next.”
Another unique aspect of the novel is how the secondary characters define the main ones. The sister of the protagonist’s lover, for example, helps illuminate facets of both her sister and the protagonist. And our experience of both character and events changes constantly as perspectives change relative to relationships. It’s a complex and fascinating process. All amid some fine and complex writing:
As the fever in his abandoned body reached its height… he heard a voice, not human, but clear and urgent. It was the sound of his life leaving him. Its tone was mocking. It offered him, instead of the peace he longed for, the possibility of return. …he could go back to his body and to the brutal perversion of life that was lived in the turned soil and torn flesh of the war; he could, …come back to the awkward, compromised, and unconquerable existence that made up human life… The voice was calling him; it appealed to his sense of shame and of curiosity unfulfilled: but if he did not heed it he would surely die.
To add still another dimension, Faulk takes us back and forth between WWI and the 1970’s, introducing the protagonist’s granddaughter, whose yearning for meaning to her empty lifestyle provokes an investigation of her grandfather’s life. It’s an interesting point-counterpoint that nourishes the reader’s experience with all the history and generations Birdsong encompasses.
I do have a caveat. The granddaughter’s investigation is long and fascinating and difficult. What she discovers adds substance and experience. Yet, it turns out that all she had to do was ask her mother, who knew the essential facts all along, and why Faulk withholds this easily available information until the end can only be authorial manipulation, and it spoiled much of the effect of the “revelation” for me. Plus the “revelation” is predictable in a manner that most of the rest of the story is not.
The final scene in the book is a complex affirmation of life worthy of its labyrinthian course through violence, despair, hope, and love. As a whole I found Birdsong a moving and admirable testimony to humanity’s capacity for humaneness. I do, though, wonder what the title has to do with the book. Anybody enlighten me?