I don't think I've ever read a novel that so claustrophobically evoked the horror of trench warfare. None of the suffering, the extensive description of life in the trenches, the sordid animal deaths of young men is at all gratuitous. It's powerful stuff. But I think what makes it powerful is the contrast with life outside the trenches, and especially with the natural world. There's a scene where Stephen Wraysford, on leave in springtime Norfolk, experiences an overwhelming epiphany at the immanence, unlikeliness, interconnectedness of the natural world around him; quite at odds with the uncaring sound of birdsong that's heard throughout, even in the battlefields. Even underground, where terrified canaries become no more than feathered gas sensors. Right at the heart of the terrible experiment, this war, this thing that Stephen has to go on watching because he can't imagine how it might turn out, is a sense of affirmation: of love of life.
It's not a perfect novel, structurally or stylistically. The writing, when Faulks is between scenes, is occasionally sloppy and almost mechanical; rarely, it's heavy-handedly sentimental. And though I can see why the modern thread of the narrative -- Elizabeth's story -- is included, its denouement feels false. I didn't much care for Elizabeth: she felt like a cipher, and I wonder if the author was attempting, through some of her choices, to portray her as much less balanced than she seemed to me.
Birdsong is a stunning -- though? because? imagined -- evocation of the camaraderie, and the petty feuds and daily drama, of life in the trenches. Everything else, every other relationship that Stephen (or his subordinate, tunneller Jack Firebrace) experiences, pales into insignificance beside the literal life-and-death matter of the men's friendships and differences.
Jack Firebrace is a fascinating character: a former worker on the Central Line, brought to France to tunnel under the front lines, he has more faith, more love, more certainty than Stephen. In the end, though, it isn't enough. Again (as with Elizabeth) I had an indefinable sense that the author felt somehow superior to Jack. It isn't that he doesn't love his characters. He certainly doesn't sneer at them or make fun of their concerns, the way that some authors do. And yet there's something lacking, something not quite right: and I'm not sure that Stephen is treated much differently, though it's his inner life, more than anyone else's, that's the core of the novel.