A Book That Changed Me A book that changed me

Birdsong

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.319.7224.1583a (Published 11 December 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1583
  1. Paul Slade, medical adviser (anti-infectives)
  1. Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceuticals

    Sebastian Faulks

    Vintage, £6.99, pp 416

    ISBN 0 09 938791 3

    Isuspect there are many books that have moulded me, shaped my personality, even determined my mood from one day to the next, but, for its sheer impact and seismic change on my outlook on life, I must choose Birdsong.

    This is one of the most startlingly evocative books of this, or any, generation. Starting as a rather gentle romantic tale set in France in the early years of this century, the story takes a dramatic lurch into the horrors of the trenches of the first world war. Although it is a familiar story, Faulks produces a vivid and traumatising description of the sights and sounds of life and death in (and under) the trenches. The pure fury and intensity of the imagery created page after page is, by turns, compelling, profoundly shocking, and, ultimately, desperately uncomfortable to read.

    It slowly dawned on me that, among my patients, I must actually have known some people for whom these imagined experiences and atrocities had been only too real—for weeks, months, and even years on end My ritualistic and somewhat perfunctory history taking had, I now guessed, been insultingly superficial for some of these diehards, now undoubtedly frustrated by their increasing antiquity and physical infirmity. Despite the horrors they had faced in the past, and the increasing uncertainties they faced for the future, they had remained stoic to the last, as if any sign of weakness was a signal to the Almighty that those battles fought 70 years before had been in vain. I could not help wondering, however, if these increasingly frequent battles with ill health would finally sap their spirit.

    I realised that Faulks' work had allowed me to appreciate that true greatness might often be close at hand. It also brought home to me that, even in our fin de siècle sophistication, inhumanity and depravity will never be far from us—they are the flip side of the human coin Without wanting to sound unduly pious, I do commend this book to anyone wishing to spend a few humbling hours trying to understand the sacrifices that some among us made.

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