Sebastian Faulks' Birdsong
is a kind of Harlequin romance with a literary slant. All the elements for pulp romance are there: "romantic" hero: soldier, refined gentleman; unhappy married woman; "romantic" locale: French suburbs, countryside; numerous, gratuitous sex scenes (I remember, horrifically, an excess of pulsating "members" and curtains of "flesh"). At the same time, Faulks strives to give it some literary taste, which I believe he largely fails to do. The time-jumping between pre-war, at-war, and present-day seems haphazard, and the present-day revelation of Elizabeth Benson has the dull patina of a celluloid ending (I think of present-day Rose in Titanic
, the end of Saving Private Ryan
, etc: the cinematic cheat of closing a tragedy by removing it from its era, neglecting the interceding lives of its characters: what I hate about epilogues).
It is no surprise that Faulks was commissioned to ghost-write an installment of the James Bond series (Devil May Care
). Faulks writes for the cinema, but mostly he writes to the base male fantasies and mock-Hemingway-an masculinity that appeals to contemporary male readers: sex, war, violence, camaraderie and friendship. His attempts at literary effects fail him, and damage the pulpy material beneath. HE is a plot-author with poor plot-pacing: his attempts to bridge past and present-day (a connection which fails to entertain or convince), repeatedly stunt the built up momentum of Stephen and Isabelle's romance, and later on: the gray-violence of the battlefield.
I look at the top quotes for Birdsong
and find dull pulp and platitudes:
I know. I was there. I saw the great void in your soul, and you saw mine.
Something one might find in a schoolboy's diary. The prose, which is often flabby at the seams, is filled with my short phrases with faked originality and stunted aesthetics: slipshod attempts are juxtaposing and reconciling the ugliness of war and the beauty of passion.
Something had been buried that was not yet dead.
The novel abounds in cliché: from trite aphoristic turns-of-phrase, to the overall story: very little strikes the reader as truly original or insightful. The Brideshead Revisited
-inspired memories are stilted and unnatural, poorly executed. If one is to read this book, one should only read it at the surface, for a war-torn romance: diving in deeper will only reveal the shallowness beneath the surface: the smallness inside of a postured grandness.