I had long seen Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks lying around my parents house before I decided to read it. I tend to shy away from war novels, finding them both depressing and complex in equal measures. I had, however, been recommended Birdsong by two of my best friends, Sian and Lexy, and thus decided it was high time to give it a go, with the added reward of ticking another book off the BBC’s Big Read.
Birdsong tells the story of a man called Stephen Wraysford and is set against the backdrop of WW1. Split into seven sections across three different time periods in concentrates on Stephen’s life both before and during the war, and also on the life of his granddaughter, Elizabeth as she attempts to trace her grandfather’s history.
The book is, without doubt, a beautifully written novel. I did, however, struggle somewhat with the three different time-spans the book covered. In the first instance, which covered Wraysford’s life prior to WW1, I found Birdsong to be utterly compelling and could barely put it down. Set in Amiens, France, Wraysford is sent to work in a textile factory owned by René Azaire, with whom he also stays. Intrigued by Azaire’s young wife, Isabelle, they engage in a passionate affair. Rife with tension, reckless behaviour and overwhelming desire, Faulks delivers a poignant illustration of the limitless boundaries of passion.
We then move forward to France, 1916, when following the end of Stephen and Isabelle’s relationship, he is now a lieutenant in the British Army. And so follows a depiction of life during the war in which, amongst the trenches and the bombings, themes of loneliness and companionship, of fear and of bravery are tenderly explored. Much of the novel’s power derives from Faulks’ descriptive writing style, in which he skillfully brings the war to life. And while I am not a fan of war themed novels I can appreciate the elegance with which Faulks writes.
The final part of the novel is based in the present day and sees Wraysford’s grand-daughter in her attempt to trace his history, having found his journals that he wrote during the war. It offers a clear juxtaposition to the harrowing story of the war itself.
Birdsong cleverly fuses both romance and blood, in what has been described as a modern masterpiece; the atrocities of war described in this novel will stay with you long after the final page has been turned.
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On my last day of interning at Bloomsbury, I was told to help myself to books on my way out, a suggestion I took perhaps quite too literally as I soon found myself wandering through Soho with a stack of books piled under both arms, and one wedged under my neck for good measure.
Amongst the books I chose was Lucie Whitehouse’s debut offering – The House At Midnight, enticed by both the front cover (I’m a sucker for aesthetics) and the novel’s comparison’s to both Rebecca and The Secret History. The sort of tale that hooks its reader from the very first page, The House at Midnight is a gripping tale from the get go.
Set deep in the rolling grounds of an Oxfordshire manor house, one balmy, stormy summer, the atmospheric setting of the novel is as prominent a character as any of the friends around which the tale revolves. Not dissimilar to Du Maurier’s Manderly is Whitehouse’s rolling Stoneborough Manor, left to Lucas by his eccentric late uncle following an untimely and mysterious death. And while the remote country house began as a refuge for the group of friends, Lucas soon becomes obsessed by both his uncle’s death and the discovery of cine films from Stoneborough Manor thirty years ago which depicted a group of friends disturbingly similar to his own. Claustrophobic and decadent, the house quickly seeps a sinister and consuming energy causing tension and insurmountable rifts in relationships as its haunting past makes its way in to the present.
The House at Midnight boasts the perfect blend of ingredients for a gripping gothic horror. Intimately drawn characters, a fast-past and evocative plot and the use of pathetic fallacy and an oppressive setting make a compelling and captivating read.
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