Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks

BirdsongBirdsong by Sebastian Faulks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Someone should have warned me. Someone should have known I am acutely claustrophobic and that opening the door to this book would be inviting in the specter of a panic attack. Picture me curled on the sofa or huddled beneath the covers, my breath shallow, my heart racing, my throat closing as soldiers worm their way through tunnels beneath the trenches. Feel the numbing of my extremities, the draining of blood from my face, the hot rush of acid in my belly, the rise of bile in my throat as those tunnel walls begin to cave and threaten to trap those young men in a tomb made of French dirt. Even now my hands shake with the memory of some of this novel’s most horrific scenes. For I couldn’t stop reading, I couldn’t look away, even through my tears and hyperventilation, I read on.

So, consider yourself warned. This book contains the stuff of nightmares. And it’s not just the dreadful tunnels, it is the unrelenting, unfathomable misery of the World War I battlefields. What is it about this war? All war is hideous, but there is something about this war-the number of casualties, the waves and waves of young men released onto the battlefields as cannon fodder, the squalor of the trenches, the chemicals-it was a war that obliterated a generation. Many of those who survived became empty shells, having left their hope and their souls and in some cases, their minds, to the battlefields of the Somme, Passchendaele, Verdun, Ypres.

Birdsong owns the war, it lives and breathes in those trenches. Your skin will crawl with lice, you will feel the slip and muck of blood and brains underneath your boots; hell, you’ll feel your toes crumbling with trenchfoot inside your rotting boots. You will cry out in horror as a soldier whose name you’ve just learned, whose two or three paragraphs will have you aching for his girl and his parents back in Surrey, dissolves in a cloud of flesh and bone beside you. Yes, you have been warned. This is not an easy read.

But Birdsong is more than a black, white, red reel of warfare. It begins as a love story between an odd and doomed French woman, Isabelle Azaire and a very young and impassioned Englishman, Stephen Wraysford. Their adulterous affair in Isabelle’s home in Amiens six years before the war opens Birdsong. Part One, the first one hundred-odd pages-is an unsettling combination of tedium and floridity as Stephen and Isabelle tear off their clothes and Edwardian sensibilities under the noses of Isabelle’s husband and two stepchildren. The affair ends but their story carries on, surfacing many years later as the war tears into homes, flesh and families. It is Stephen whom we follow throughout the story, he who carries us onto the battlefield, into the trenches and down those dreadful tunnels.

Halfway through the story we jump to 1978, where Elizabeth Benson has taken a sudden interest in her grandfather, Stephen Wraysford and the fate of the men who died in or limped home from the trenches of World War I. Here the narrative stumbles a bit. Elizabeth, now in her late 30s, seems entirely unaware of the horrors of The Great War. This rang utterly false. “No one told me,” she says upon seeing the battlefields and monuments of the Somme. I think a British citizen of her generation would have been well aware of the magnitude of that war. But Faulks gives Elizabeth a strong voice and her own personal dilemmas that bring the existential quest for meaning and truth full circle. We don’t stay in late 70s London for long, but we dip in and out until the novel’s end as Elizabeth’s story becomes woven into her grandfather’s.

Sebastian Faulk’s writing is sumptuous and pitch perfect, capturing the essence of each era he writes: the tumescent melodrama that unfolds in Amiens in 1910, the desperation, emptiness and incongruous vividness of the war years, and the practical, surging energy and wealth of late 70s London. This is a great novel, an engrossing but devastating read. Just look up every so often and take deep, slow breaths. You’ll need them.

NPR aired the following segment on 1/23/14 about digitized British World War I diaries.…

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Book Review: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

The bitter irony of war is that it defines life at the same time as it destroys. For those in uniform, following orders is the one raison d’etre when all reason has been lost in the bloodied muck of the battlefield. For those left behind, doing for the war effort becomes the channel through which fear and pride flow into the morass of uncertainty.

How does war change us? Does it redefine character? Does it halt the trajectory of our lives and set us on a different path? Does it show in stark relief who we really are, stripped bare of our defenses and pretenses?

And who are once stripped of that most central piece of our identity: our literal – flesh and bone – face?

With Toby’s Room, her follow-up to 2007’s Life Class, Pat Barker returns to England in the years just prior to World War I. The first part of Toby’s Room – set in 1912 at the country home of Toby’s and his sister Elinor’s upper-middle class family – serves as a prequel to Life Class. Its second half – set in 1917 – tells us what became of the characters and their relationships that were the central focus of Life Class. Toby’s Room can be read independently of its precursor, but it is a strong testament to the writer’s skill how seamlessly she weaves together these two books so that they seem not like prequel or sequel, but parts of a greater whole.

Barker explores many of the same themes in Toby’s Room – the intersection of art and war, the brutality of the WWI battlefields and trenches, the emotional defenses people create to survive the worst of times. But Toby’s Room is darker, richer and crueler than Life Class. It shows us that not even the greatest heroism and courage can change the face of shame.

There is an element of mystery in Toby’s Room, as Elinor obsesses over the “Missing, Believed Killed” telegram her family receives in 1917. Her search for the truth of her brother’s disappearance in France defines the narrative’s plot. Elinor manages this intrigue while turning her back on any involvement in the war, willfully denying the effect it has had on her life, her love affairs and her family. She tries to lose herself in her art, but eventually it is her art that draws her directly into the war effort.

Pat Barker brings to life the fascinating intersection of war, art and science during World War I, intermingling historical characters and institutions with her fictional narrative to show how artists aided in surgical reconstruction of soldiers’ faces disfigured by bullets, bombs and shrapnel. I spent some time looking through the Tonks’ portraits at The Gillies Archives – the creation and use of which is also a central theme of Toby’s Room. The portraits of faces destroyed by war and reconstructed with the medical technology available at the time are devastating. Barker gives these forgotten men voices, faces and souls.

Her writing style is restrained and distant, almost cold at times. The tone fits the characters and their social class and mirrors the walls they have erected around their hearts. And it makes the brutality of the story all the more shocking.

Book Review: The Cove by Ron Rash

The CoveThe Cove by Ron Rash

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The dank and dangerous cylinder of a new well, where the walls could collapse at any moment, crushing the digger in a muddy grave; a valley so overwhelmed by a cliff of granite that light shudders and dies in its wet shadow; a voice choked from sound, leaving a man trapped in silence; a young woman isolated by fear and suspicion in a remote mountain cabin: these are the acedian images Ron Rash writes to sobering effect in The Cove.

This is a novel of a place seemingly suspended in time, a forgotten hollow in the Blue Ridge mountains of western North Carolina, where venomous snakes slither, wild parakeets flit like flocks of bright green faeries and where residents still believe in witches’ curses. But the modern world invades this isolated land with the wounded and dead from European trenches. As their broken bodies return home, fear of the enemy Hun incites public hysteria.

Rash weaves a story with themes that ring loudly to the present-day: how patriotism can be a mask for prejudice and a justification for violence, how war robs us of our sensibilities as well as our citizens.Yet instead of stating the obvious, he shows us with an atmospheric mystery that runs languid on the surface, but races with an unstoppable current in depths you cannot fathom.

The Cove is written in an opalescent and mannered style that is reminiscent of a 19th century Gothic romance. It abounds with literary archetypes: a persecuted young woman dreaming of escape and the love of a strong man; a mysterious stranger who speaks with music instead of words; a wealthy young villain with delusions of grandeur; a Greek chorus of simple country folk; a gruff but well-meaning brother. We know these characters because they have been with us from our earliest memories of faerie tales and mythology. We sense that our star-crossed lovers will fare no better than Romeo and Juliet; we are wiser than to hope for a hero. Whether or not a hero appears is for you to discover.

The novel’s flaws can be found in Rash’s over-simplification of the pretentious and cowardly Army recruiter, Chauncey Feith, and the backward suspicions of the townsfolk. He also dwells overlong on Laurel’s isolation and loneliness and treats her response to romance with little-girl wonder, which nearly degrades her character rather than invoking the reader’s empathy.

Despite some of weaker character development, this reader is delighted to have discovered a writer who can craft a powerful story with captivating language.

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Book Review: The O’Briens by Peter Behrens

The O'BriensThe O’Briens by Peter Behrens

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It would seem the greater the sweep of history encompassed by a novel, the more confined the writer. The facts of history are many and easily called out, the settings, characters and dialogue are well-defined by their eras and the more years a story covers, the shallower the characters can become as they are stretched and diluted by time.

It is, therefore, deeply satisfying to read a saga as intimate and profound as The O’Briens. Peter Behrens is a master of the art of storytelling. He understands the fine balance between enchanting prose and compelling facts.

The O’Briens begins deep in the pine forests of northern Quebec in 1887 and ends in a dinghy just off the Cape Breton coast in 1960. It follows the fortunes and tragedies of Joe O’Brien, the oldest of five siblings who lose first their father to the Boer War, then their mother to despair and disease. Joe, although taciturn and moody, is a natural leader with an affinity for numbers and an ambition that he uses to propel himself and his siblings out of Canada’s back country when he is barely a teenager. Fans of Peter Behrens will recognize the O’Brien determination from the author’s previous novel Law of Dreams, which tells the story of Joe’s grandfather, Fergus O’Brien, who escaped the famine in Ireland to immigrate to Canada two generations earlier.

Joe rushes across North America, from the forests of British Columbia to the beaches of Southern California and down to Mexico, building a fortune in railroad construction. In 1912, at a quiet real estate office in Venice Beach, Joe encounters a young French-American woman, Iseult Wilkins. Iseult has just buried her mother and she too is an orphan, as restless as Joe, yet constrained by her gender and limited financial resources.

Passion and recognition of kindred spirits bring Joe and Iseult to an altar within weeks of their first meeting. It is in depicting this marriage, an invisible ribbon that shreds to a breaking point by years of betrayal and grief and is knotted anew by tenderness and love, that Behrens reveals some of his greatest strengths as a writer. We come to know Joe and Iseult as much as they allow us to, their voices ringing true as they falter and succumb to their own vanities.

Other characters, such as Joe’s brother Grattan, his daughters Frankie and Margo and son Mike, are no less vivid for playing secondary roles. Their stories bring us directly into the emotional devastation of the men who fought in World War I and World War II and of the families left, waiting for the worst news.

Behrens is an atmospheric writer. His settings are vivid, his characters feel and react with tremendous emotion, his prose is rich and lambent. Yet his pacing is precise and brisk. He has such a great span of time to cover – one with many world-changing events – but he selects the most pivotal and delves deeply, showing his characters’ development by how they respond to their circumstances.

It was a difficult book to set aside each evening when I knew I had to stock up on sleep; I found myself longing for the free afternoon and early morning late in the week when I could be enfolded by Behrens’s story. This is a luminous read.

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Book Review: Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

Three Day RoadThree Day Road by Joseph Boyden

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Xavier Bird, a young Ojibwa from the Moose Cree tribe in northern Ontario, returns to Canada from the Europe’s Western Front in the summer of 1919. He is alone, in unimaginable pain from an amputated leg, addicted to morphine, and dying from a spirit broken by the nightmare of war.

Carrying him home in her dugout canoe is his aunt Niska, an elderly medicine woman who has lived on her own in the bush since escaping a Catholic boarding school in her teens. Through a twisting, dreamlike journey of words and images we follow Xavier and Niska on a three-day river trail home. The journey takes us through the years of these characters’ lives. To distract Xavier from his pain and to quell her own anxiety over his addiction and the emotional wounds that she cannot heal, Niska recounts her childhood as European settlers closed in on her tribe’s ancestral territories. She reveals how she survived and thrived on her own, fell in love with a French trapper, learned to use her healing and divining powers, and how she saved Xavier from subjugation at the hands, whips and rum of white settlers.

Xavier crossed the Atlantic as a Canadian Army private with his best friend, Elijah Weesageechak (“Whiskeyjack” to non-Cree speakers). Elijah had spent his early years at a Catholic boarding school and is fluent in English, but ignorant of his tribe’s hunting, tracking and survival skills. He is reclaimed by the Cree forest and comes of age with Niska and Xavier. Xavier is a patient teacher and Elijah a crack student. By the time the young men arrive in Europe, their marksmanship skills are renowned. They are selected to train with an elite group of snipers. Xavier is soon overshadowed by Elijah’s charisma and ego but the two remain a team during their nearly two years on the battlefields of France and Belgium. Why Xavier returns to his homeland alone becomes the thread of tension that reverberates keenly to the final pages.

This is a beautifully written yet brutal novel. Each modern war has its unique horrors. Three Day Road mires the reader in the muck of World War I trench warfare as bodies pile in corners, lice pulse in clothing seams, and toes rot black with trench foot. Boyden spares no detail of hand-to-hand combat, of the blood-lust that becomes the sole means of emotional survival for some soldiers, of the ache for the relief of morphine. The devastation is so relentless, you understand any soldier’s break with reason, you feel their uncontrollable rage and their sense of hopelessness as they accept that each moment may be their last.

It is Boyden’s amazing storytelling ability and his skills in pacing and tension that keep the gore from overwhelming the narrative. The characters who ripple through bring life and dimension to the battlefields, farmland, forest and hearths of Europe and Canada. This is historical fiction at its finest: a scholar’s command of factual detail balanced by a storyteller’s heart and passion. Niska provides us with an historical context, telling the story of northern First Nations in the early part of the 20th century. Xavier’s story is the eternal lesson that nothing good comes of war, a lesson we seemed destined to repeat and fail at least once each generation.

I’m glad I waited a few more days to compile my Best Reads of 2011 list. Three Day Road will surely appear in the top ten.

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