Arts book review

A British history of World War I

An exciting event ends with a disappointing read

Sebastian Faulks
Vintage International
June 1997

In February 2020, I scrolled through my inbox to find an email advertising something different than the usual department spam. A graduate student, Stephen Filippone, was hosting a “Mysterious Book Exchange” with the help of MIT Libraries, the Community Service Office, LIT@MIT, MindHandHeart, and the Graduate Student Council. Any MIT-affiliated individual could recommend a book and write a brief description as to why they recommended it. The organizers would then purchase the books and allow MIT affiliates to browse through and take one home. However, the books would be wrapped and organized solely by genre. The potential new book owners would rely on the original recommender’s note to pick a book.

Almost two years after it was originally planned in March 2020, the exchange was finally held in the Hayden Library courtyard Nov. 10, 2021. Scheduled to run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., the exchange ended around noon, when all of the over 300 books were claimed.

I eagerly marked the event in my calendar. In February 2020, when the initial form to submit recommendations was sent out, I recommended one of my personal favorite books (can you guess which?). Now, I was excited to see what new book I would discover.

A fan of historical fiction and multigenerational novels, I had a tough time choosing a book, each recommendation more enticing than the previous. Eventually, I settled on recommendation #151 (literary fiction), a novel titled Birdsong, a “stunning history of some of The Great War’s bloodiest battles, part exploration of trauma, and part examination of the primal things that motivate us, [sic] and it is not to be missed.”

Set against the backdrop of the First World War, the book follows young Englishman Stephen Wraysford as he falls in love in France before the war and eventually becomes an officer in the English Army. Threaded through this narrative is a story that takes place nearly 60 years later: a woman named Elizabeth traces her grandfather’s diaries to piece together his experience in the war. Unsurprisingly, Stephen is Elizabeth’s grandfather. 

The novel begins in 1910 as Stephen, a 20-year-old businessman, is sent to the French town of Amiens by his employer to report on the state of the neighboring country’s textile industry. Hosted by the Azaires, an affluent family that runs the local textile shop, Stephen falls hopelessly in love with the madam of the house, Isabelle Azaire. They begin a tumultuous romance that ends with Isabelle fleeing south with Stephen to St. Rémy. After three months with him, Isabelle leaves Stephen without notice and never returns.

Part I of Birdsong was rushed and distasteful, as if an entire Korean drama was unfolding in the course of 117 pages. As soon as Stephen arrives in the Azaires’ mansion, the frantic dance between him and Isabelle begins. Throw in Isabelle’s lustful 16-year-old stepdaughter and glimpses into the conflicts between France’s proletariat and industrialist classes, and the novel quickly becomes a bewildering disappointment. Characters are not properly introduced until much later in the novel. Stephen’s backstory is not revealed until page 99, when he and Isabelle have already left the Azaire household in disarray and the town of Amiens in scandal. As a result, the characters do not seem relatable and elicit no empathy from the reader.

In part II of Birdsong, we are forwarded seven years into the future, in the midst of World War I. Stephen is an aloof lieutenant in the Royal Army whose only friend is Captain Michael Weir, an engineer in charge of a mining regiment. Stephen nearly dies in one expedition to the no man’s land. During this episode, Stephen and Weir engage in a series of conversations about the purpose of the war. Stephen believes the war is hopeless and a waste of life. True to this, through Stephen’s eyes, we see images of soldiers with their skin burned away by chlorine gas, faces torn off by bombs, and many more atrocities. Weir on the other hand, coming from a strict and overprotective family, sees the army as his only home and the brotherhood there as his only solace. Interwoven between these opposing viewpoints is the story of Jack Firebrace, a poor miner who, despite his advanced age, volunteered for the army for the prospect of a few coins. 

These characters demonstrate the humanity of the soldiers in the war: a distant lieutenant who inspired only disdain in his troops, an impassioned lieutenant who found a life worth living amongst his men, and a desperate miner who joined the army seeking not to fight but to keep his family alive. While Faulks strives to define each character’s motivations, he fails to connect them to his audience. Perhaps it was the chronological ambiguity of the events in part II or the disconnect between the war and the events of part I. Stephen seemed no more real to me than a piece of cardboard — the officer in the corner no one could quite understand. Weir had a more complex background, but we see none of his significant thoughts. Faulks’s story focused more on his inability to become intimate with women than his views on the war, which is supposedly one of the main themes of the book. Jack was perhaps the most involved character in the novel. Through him we see the profile of a typical Royal Army soldier, a man thrown into the war not by romantic dreams of heroism but by the harsh realities of circumstance. Jack’s desperation to return to England to visit his sick son and his emotional detachment from the war was the most human and understandable.

The novel does not progress much from there. Elizabeth, Stephen’s granddaughter, is introduced, and it becomes clear that the novel is actually an account of Stephen’s life pieced together by his diaries. By the end of the war, Stephen is the only man in his regiment alive. He never reunites with Isabelle, only meeting her briefly by serendipity during a reprieve from the army. Instead he meets and marries Jeanne, Isabelle’s elder sister, with whom he raises Isabelle’s and his daughter, a child he never knew existed. The child, Francoise, is Elizabeth’s mother.

Birdsong left me feeling nothing. I was no closer to Stephen Wraysforth or Isabelle Azaire than I was at the start of the novel. Faulks seemed to make virtually no effort to explore his characters beyond a few paragraphs about their backstory. Events unfolded chronologically, but the exact amount of time between them was ambiguous. Overall, the novel felt like a cursory tale of the life of a soldier. Compared to the previous historical fiction I read about a soldier in another bloody European war, Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, Birdsong was nothing short of disappointing. 

Though I may not have enjoyed the novel, I am still glad that the Mysterious Book Exchange left me with a greater desire to continue reading and a renewed hope that books will forever hold a place at MIT.