“Follow the violins”
Shortly after sending this text, I met university chum and comedy cohort Charlie on a sunny day in Covent Garden. More specifically, if you’re wondering, we met in the middle of the stifling covered market on a balcony overlooking the pie shop and a string quartet enthusiastically thrashing out an up-tempo rendition of Pachelbel’s Canon in D. It was like being in an overcrowded oven. With lift music. We relocated.
In an only slightly more spacious Café Nero around the corner Charlie and I boxed ourselves in the corner with a chai latte and an unridiculous latte, respectively, to discuss her favourite book – Birdsong.
It’s worth stating here that in all of my reading I’ve generally swerved fiction, non-fiction, poetry or anything based on war. I’ve always felt rather guilty about this. It’s not that I don’t have an appreciation for the sacrifices made or the suffering of others, but equally it’s not that I’m too sensitive to handle it depicted in words, and it’s not that I’m disinterested or uncaring either. I don’t know what it is, but when it comes to reading I just find war books such a turn-off. Perhaps because there’s so many of them that I don’t know where to start. Once I’m into it, I’m into it, but I just never would pick one off a shelf. What an excellent first book Charlie accidentally chose, then, for the first in this project of mine.
Charlie read the book for her English A Level and I can see why. It’s got vivid enough imagery to keep a sixteen-year-old enthralled whilst at the same time having a slow moving plot and enough literary leanings to prepare the poor, naive under-undergraduates for the dense mindbogglers that make up most university reading lists. Our discussion was generally an appreciation of this, and a brief reminiscence on how emotionally invested she’d become in it whilst studying, and how much I’d enjoyed reading something I ordinarily wouldn’t have. Then we disagreed, and on something rather significant.
Stephen, the main character, was something I could not make up my mind about. Charlie loved him, thought him heroic and bold, and generally I agreed, but I couldn’t help getting hung up on his bizarre decision making. I don’t wish to reveal any endings, but I found Stephen to be rather an irritating proponent of the “love the one you’re with” philosophy, which I can only assume was a move employed to ensure a happy ending in a book that really didn’t call for one. Charlie’s argument is that it’s a six-hundred-page novel and I’m getting stuck on one plot point and ignoring the rather larger picture painted by the five-hundred-and-ninety-nine-and-a-half other pages. She may have a point, but don’t tell her I said so.
We found agreeable ground, once again, when discussing the present day sections of the book. We were both rather at a loss of the necessity of these, almost to the point of skipping them. In the author’s introduction in my edition, Sebastian Faulks makes the point that he wanted to really convey the experience, fear and atrocity of war and went on a very personal journey to do so and those sections are his explanation of this to the reader. In my opinion his introduction did a significantly better job of this than the story did. In fact, I considered the introduction a vital part of the book and hope it’s printed in all future editions of the book as Faulks has a really contagious enthusiasm for engagement that makes you invested in his novel before it even starts.
We also both agreed that the last ten pages of the book, a graphic description of childbirth, were significantly more cringe-inducing than all of the horrendous descriptions of acts and human mutilations of war, even to the point of a stranger on the train asking me if I was OK when I was reading them. The purpose of this was the subject of some debate and I think in the end we settled on it being an attempt to make a point about rebirth and nasty things making beautiful things in the long run. Or something like that.
I enjoyed Birdsong. It was everything I wanted from this project: a book that I would never have picked up but spent days enjoying from mine and someone else’s perspective. The pictures of war that Faulks invokes in the readers mind are strong and lasting. Even now, I could clearly describe the scene at the Battle of Messines and the tears I had to try to read through. The love story at the beginning is something Charlie warned me against when I started the book but I found even that intriguing and that is testament to the writing. A book that definitely deserves its place on the A Level syllabus.