Books that Change your Life

Guest post by Gordon Binnie – diver, mountaineer-er, cyclist, runner and book devourer

Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

I first read Birdsong in 1995, not long after it was published. I was incredibly moved by the story and although I have re-read the book a number of times since, I found that the impact of that first reading has not dimmed with the passage of time.

The novel is in several parts and spans nearly 70 years, beginning in 1910 in the city of Amiens in northern France and ending in England in 1979. Whilst there are various stories woven throughout the book, the main story arc is Stephen Wraysford’s experiences in and around the trench warfare in northern France in World War I. 

Before we reach the trenches however, we are introduced to Stephen’s troubled, complex, and intelligent character by way of his part, and subsequent emotional turmoil, in a damaging affair with a French woman trapped in a loveless and barren marriage, before the outbreak of war.

We are then taken four years on, to a time and a place we have only read about, only heard about. Those grainy images on black and white film of the horrors of the ‘war to end all wars’, show speeded up images of these desperate, innocent young men, on all sides of the conflict, led to a senseless and brutal slaughter in the thousands, the hundreds of thousands: the  millions. 

This countless death, for me, is where the book comes alive. This is where Faulks makes his fictional account of one man’s experiences in the trenches seem more real than any of the film I have seen. Faulks takes us deep inside his main character’s thoughts as he struggles to survive, physically and mentally, in a place that is truly beyond what men should ever be capable of thinking of doing to fellow men.

The battle scenes, particularly the infamous Somme attack, are immensely powerful reading, though it is not just the graphic descriptions that shock and then numb the senses, as much as the realisation of the colossal scale of the slaughter and the knowledge that these killing fields are a part of our history. The novel may be fiction but the main events are not in doubt.

The book is intensely thought provoking, urging the reader to probe their own mind and challenging the reader to try to comprehend the horror of the distorted, twisted, utter chaos that has become the soldiers’ reality.

I have never before or since, encountered a novel that touched and moved me in such a way. I will always remember this book and I will always have a copy of it in the house. I know I will pick it up in future and to re-read parts of it again, and again.

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