In France during the First World War, a young British lieutenant named Stephen Wraysford is struggling to survive some of the bloodiest battles of the 20th century. All around him is death and destruction. Sixty years later, his granddaughter Elizabeth Benson is piecing together his life through coded diaries and conversations with veterans. Their two journeys interweave throughout Sebastian Faulks’s moving novel, Birdsong, which was published in 1993. The book is an important exploration of the horrors and violence of war — and also the responsibility of future generations to remember this history decades later.
Stephen is almost grateful for the arrival of the First World War as a way of escaping his personal problems. But there is no glorification of the violence and horror he witnesses in the trenches once he arrives. One hundred years later, how has war changed? And how has it remained the same?
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In trying to understand more about her grandfather’s life, Elizabeth begins to uncover a much larger picture of the First World War. She is incredibly moved by her visits to war memorials and conversations with other veterans from the war. How do we remember it 100 years later?
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For many soldiers on the front lines, thoughts of their family are a comfort among the carnage. Meanwhile, in the 1970s, Elizabeth’s connection to her grandfather begins to help her to make sense of her own life. How important is family?
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In the trenches of France in the First World War, Stephen sees death everywhere. His friends and fellow soldiers can be killed in front of his eyes. As the troops march through the countryside, they see bodies piling up in mass graves. There is so much death that it becomes chillingly normal. How can we respond to such horror?
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Despite the many physical and psychological traumas of war, the novel has several moving love stories. There is not just the romance between Stephen and Isabelle, and later Stephen and Jeanne — but also platonic love between friends on the front lines, and familial love which Elizabeth explores in the 1970s.
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