Sunday, 3 February 2013

Birdsong - a non-rambling opinion (mostly)

My good looking copy, from
the Folio Society. I think I love
 those guys (and Mrs GBR of course, who
bought it for me)
Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks (Hutchinson: 1993). Faulks gets stuck into WW1, following the life of Stephen Wraysford as he falls in a tragic kind of love before getting whisked away by the violent events of the early twentieth century. 

So I didn’t post last Sunday. Sorry about that. I felt a bit worse for wear, then got distracted by Andy Murray, then by lunch, then by napping. Before I knew it, it was Monday again.
It’s probably a good thing, because this book needed time to settle. There’s a bunch I want to say about it, but I know you guys don’t have the longest attention spans, so I’ll reign in the more rambling of my thoughts. Well, I’ll try.
The big thing to say (and it’s something I didn’t realise until a few days after I finished the book) is that Birdsong gets under your skin. I couldn’t stop thinking about it after I put it down. I finished the last page and, days later, still felt myself daydreaming about some aspect of it or other. 

I’ve talked before about how some books make that happen simply by being long, the logic being if you spend a month reading something, it’ll end up lodging in your brain by dint of its weight if not by its quality.
And, no doubt, Birdsong probably benefits from its length in the same way. But I think it’s more than that. Ordinarily, I’m a language junkie. The sure fire way to get me panting at a book is to make the language so rich it makes you short of breath (just ask Pierre). But Faulks doesn’t do that. There are no passages of explosive language. Instead, he gets you high on the detail. 

He creates a scene, picks out some of its most subtle but beautiful components, then puts them under a microscope in a way that makes the people and places slap you in the face. It’s this careful choosing and expert exploiting of detail – not any bombastic wording – that got me hooked. It made this book stay with me long after I put it down.
Sorry, that was a bit of a rambling thought, but it felt an important one. And here’s two more (put more succinctly, just for you).
The characters in Birdsong are distinct, detailed, unusual and compelling. Almost ethereal, but without losing reality.
The pacing of the book is masterful. He softens you up with love story, and just when you’re starting to get bored of it, he plunges you into the WW1 trenches. And just when you’re getting bored of that, he takes you to the 1970s. And just when you’re getting bored of that, he wraps things up with high emotion and meaning.
Ok, so maybe not that succinct.
There were (there always are) downsides. Any book of this length is going to have treacly sections you just have to wade through. Any book with the well trodden ground of WW1 at its core will feel a little clichéd in parts.
But I can’t think badly of a book that drew me in as much as this. I can’t criticize a story that stayed with me and made me daydream for days afterwards.
Hot dog! It’s been a high scoring start to the year. I’m enjoying my reading a lot at the moment. Possibly too much, there seems little time for anything else.
Next week, a book which comes with the "Jewish Book of the Year" accolade to live up to. Let’s hope it does.

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