Saturday, 17 December 2011

Review - Birdsong

OK. Readers of the world. What has Sebastian Faulks done to you? What dark arts has he been employing? Because that is the only reason I can think of to explain Birdsong's inclusion on numerous Best Of booklists (including my very own 1001) and for the glowing, goggly-eyed review snippets that are plastered across my edition's back cover.

Honestly, what did he do to persuade an actual human being (and a literary critic, at that) to declare that 'This is literature at its very best'? Because, dear readers, this is not literature at its very best. This is a bad book.

Actually, I don't think the writing is particularly terrible. It's just lazy - a random firing of adjectives and adverbs that don't fit and don't make an awful lot of sense. Sebastian Faulks seems not to understand how to make language work for him. Words aren't just collections of letters, they mean something, they have connotations and nuances, but Faulks appears to have missed this important creative writing lesson. How else do you explain his description of a husband in the middle of arguing with his unfaithful wife as rejuvenated, or mentioning that someone bursting into a packed meeting hall to start a riot has candid eyes? Yes, candid means open, honest, but it also (at least for me) has overtones of calm and friendly. Which I don't think you get much of at a riot.

When I was reading I had huge difficulty getting any sort of mental image from the scenes at all, because all those wrong words kept bursting in and disrupting my thoughts. Possibly as a result of this I found it very difficult to connect with any of Faulks's characters. 504 pages of Birdsong later, I would be hard pressed to give you any sort of explanation of what sort of person the hero Stephen actually is. What is he like? Well, I suppose I could say that he's got dark hair, he's weirdly mature for his age, the war makes him angry - but those things don't add up to a character. He's just a human-shaped word blur. But if Stephen is a blank slate, don't even start me on his 'love-interest' Isabelle. Her hair is strawberry-chestnut coloured (really. Seriously. We get told this more than once) and, er, she has really great skin (also repeatedly described), but in terms of a personality she's just a big hole for Stephen to put his issues and his penis into. I've read better love stories in Hello!

As far as plot goes, it's supposed to be a sweeping and tragic account of World War I, an epic romance, a tale of one woman finding out who she really is, and so on. Love story, soldiers, suffering, you know the sort of thing. But whatever the plot is at a macro level, most actual scenes can be summarised as follows:
The room was quiet. They looked at each other. Emotions passed between them. They shared an experience, such as sex or a dramatic and unlikely conversation, described using many unsuitable adjectives. The structure around them creaked ominously, because all life ends in death. Outside, the birds were singing.
 Oh god, the birds. The birds are EVERYWHERE, fluttering and cheeping and being meaningful - except that they're inserted as a metaphor so often that they cease to have any particular meaning at all. I guess Faulks meant to make some point about freedom and natural life, but all it did to me was to make me really hate birds for a while. 

Actually, for a book that's all about emotion, I don't think I felt moved by it (in the ways I was obviously meant to) once. The characters either have the responses they ought to feel - which inevitably tend towards the melodramatic 'Alack, my love, the tragedy of our lives!' sort of thing - or they have bizarrely over-experienced, over-understood thoughts on the universe that, for me, ring equally false - because who ever heard of an Englishman saying, "I saw the void in your soul, and you saw mine?" No, when they want to convey that sort of deep love towards another human being they pause for a long time and then say something like, "Should be a nice day tomorrow." Now that's a conversation I could believe in.

I found Birdsong without suspense, without interest and without soul. The twists didn't suprise me, the story didn't carry me and the sex scenes just made me snigger on the Tube. Give the man a Bad Sex award by all means (he more than deserves it), but don't, for heaven's sake, read this book.

2.5 stars.

(My latest Litro blog, by the way, is getting into the Christmas spirit by singing the praises of books as gifts. This is not, in case you are wondering (or my family) a hint. I'm just, as you may have noticed, a fairly pro-book kind of person. Enjoy.)

1 comment:

  1. I haven't read this one, but I thought A Week in December was fantastic. Maybe he should stick to writing novels set in the present.