Birdsong starts as a love story, when Stephen Wraysford spends some time in France visiting a textile factory on behalf of his English employers and staying athouse of the factory's owner, Azaire. He begins an intense affair with Azaire's wife, Isabelle, which is to have a far-reaching effect on his own and other people's lives.
As a romance, Birdsong didn't quite hit the mark for me. Stephen and Isabelle's relationship is all passion and no substance, and there were times I couldn't understand Isabelle's motivation for acting as she did. It's impossible to say more without giving away much of the plot, but I did find these parts of the book a little unsatisfying. While we're on the subject of romance, there are some very graphic sex scenes in the novel, but they're done well and serve to illustrate how Stephen and Isabelle got so hopelessly wrapped up in each other.
We are a fair way into the novel before the action switches to the trenches of the First World War, and it is here that the author really shows his stuff. His descriptions of life at the front are terrifying, and you can almost feel the mud, the lice and the atmosphere of fear and despair which surrounds the soldiers there. The very best fiction affects my mood even when I'm not reading it, and Birdsong has made me feel quite depressed over the last couple of days. The fact that scenes like the ones described in the novel actually happened, and that so many ordinary men were sent to their deaths over a few yards of muddy French field is quite staggering.
But Birdsong isn't just about death and despair, it's also a story of triumph and endurance. Despite the most horrific conditions, Wraysford manages to hold on to his humanity and retains a dogged determination to survive even when death seems preferable. This, together with scenes of extreme courage and fraternal love give Birdsong some wonderfully uplifting moments.
There is also a part of the novel which is set in the 1970s, and features a woman - Elizabeth - trying to find out more about her grandfather who fought in the trenches. I suppose it's meant to give the novel some context and provide something modern readers can relate to, but I found these passages a bit of a distraction. They also gave away some plot points which I think would have been better saved for the end. The dual time period means that the book has two endings; the first in 1918 as the war finishes, and the second which concludes Elizabeth's story. I would have preferred to end the book in 1918, to be honest, and felt the poignancy of this first ending would have been best left to resonate without having to then tack on ending number two.
As a novel about the horrors of war, Birdsong is outstanding and would certainly be a five star read. I'm knocking off a star for the romance and 1970s coda, but this is still a fantastically rich and thought-provoking book which I'm very glad to have read.