- Mixture of new and old readers
- Vast variation on reactions
- Different covers: led to discussion of AV adaptations colouring reading
- Descriptions of war/tunnelling: fed into personal family memories and memories of working in the archives
- Writing style: at strongest when sparse
- Responses to characters
- Comparison with Toby’s Room (the book club’s other WWI read)
- Sense of an ending
[As the book club enters its second year, the increasing animation of the discussions is starting to reflect the members’ comfort with the notion that constructive disagreement only leads to a more fruitful conversation. A wider variety of topics is thus getting covered, and so, I thought it might be helpful to have a road map of the major themes. That is why I’ve provided the list above, and will do so in future minutes.]
The book club was pretty evenly split between returning readers (for Shirley, whose recommendation this was, it was a third return to the book) and those who were coming to it for the first time. Even though there were different responses to various parts of the book, it was generally felt that the sections that dealt with the war – the ‘trench sections’ – were the strongest. It was also felt that the introductory section could have been fairly severely pruned; in fact, it caused such a negative reaction in one of our founder members that she found herself unable to continue reading, and came to the meeting primarily to see whether the group discussion helped her change her mind. [Her hilarious synopsis was as follows: horny young Englishman seduces married older woman and they run away together. Then she gets pregnant and leaves him too. Neither of them is likeable.] The intention to convey burning passion by the repeated use of the code word ‘pulse’ unfortunately conveyed only unintentional hilarity by reminding the not-so-passionate reader of lentils.
Speaking of visual themes, the different covers on the books suggested the ways in which the book’s marketing had impacted its reception. One version had a stark silhouette of a solider and a cross, giving the war content centre stage. However, more recent covers had the lead actors essaying Stephen and Isabelle on the cover, highlighting the romantic elements of the book which the book club felt could have done with some fairly extensive editing out. Not being entirely convinced by the portrayal of the characters onscreen probably contributed to some of the readers’ inability to get into the book. This specific example segued into a more general discussion about the effects of audio-visual adaptation on the reading experience.
One of the reasons the war descriptions rang so true for the readers was the resonance with personal family or professional experience. Anecdotes were shared of relatives’ wartime experiences and the impacts on family life, as well as the ways in which letters in archives brought the sense of lived experiences so close the correspondents seemed to still be present.
It was generally agreed that the book was at its strongest when it was at its most understated. Some of the scenes that were specifically named were Weir’s death, Stephen’s ‘rebirth’ (because so much of it was left to the imagination), Elizabeth’s visit to the graves (what was felt to be the strongest part of an otherwise fairly unnecessary present day sub-narrative), the references to the shot at dawn brigade.
Jeanne was unanimously agreed to be the heroine of the novel. The author’s affectionate portrayal of Jack was agreed to call up an answering affection for him in the minds of the readers, especially in his emotions for his son, and the fact that he so matter-of-factly saved Stephen’s life.
Weir was another sympathetic if tragic character, which meant that the ghastly scene with his family evoked stronger feelings of revulsion among the readers.
A comparison with Toby’s Room, the book club’s other WWI read, was inevitable. The general feeling was that, at least in terms of writing about war, this was the better book; it was felt that the ‘artists’ in Toby’s Room seemed, by their studied unconcern for what was happening around them to devalue it. Arguably, Weir’s parents, with their ‘boredom’, belong in this book. But Toby’s Room seemed to look more clear-sightedly at the world beyond the end of the war: the reconstructive surgeries that are such a central part of the book have had far-reaching effects in the world the readers now live in.
On the whole, it was agreed that Birdsong (where Stephen wants to see exactly how far he can endure in an attempt to make sense of it all, and be there for his men, even as his original squadron is depleted and replaced over and over again) could be read as an extended response to the questions posed in Toby’s Room as to attitudes, both civilian and military, to war.
On a lighter note, though neither of the main female protagonists were popular, Elinor was markedly less so.
The ending felt decidedly unsatisfactory to most of the readers. A minor, unlikeable character kicking conkers whilst pontificating felt like a let-down; the ‘real’ book was agreed to have finished with the stunning climactic scene of Stephen’s ‘rebirth’.
The next title for discussion will be: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome