I loved Faulks’ ‘Birdsong’, which I read years ago, and I was expecting something with the same intensity and emotion from this one. The blurb certainly suggested that the same themes were there and it promised to compel me, but instead I was left feeling a little disappointed by his latest novel.
I found the main character, Robert Hendricks, quite hard to understand. The book narrates his childhood through into adulthood and when he is drafted to fight in WWII. After a decorated career in the army, he survives the war and becomes a psychiatrist. The reader joins him as a man past middle age with what seems like a lot of regret and a feeling that his life has passed him by while he waited for something to happen. He has studiously avoided anything to do with the war and isolated himself from everyone he was close to and has never again made close relationships or lasting friendships. It seems to be only now at this late stage of his life and career that he is allowing himself to remember and actually ‘live’.
This leads inevitably to a lot of philosophising and self-analysing which to be quite honest I found quite irritating. There is also lot of psychiatric detail and discussion (it is evident that the novel is incredibly well-researched)that I feel I would normally find interesting , but in this book, I just couldn’t be bothered with it. I think it reminded me too much of Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy and, to be frank, she just writes it better.
The writing style also kind of annoyed me in places. It seemed too fastidious somehow – too measured and too controlled. This was especially the case in the parts about Luisa, the woman who Dr Hendricks is in love with. This is a woman who he has supposedly waited his whole life for, never able to love another because he could not get over her. But to me, this passion did not come across at all and instead the passages where he describes her seem sentimental and insincere. Compared with A Narrow Road to the Deep North that I finished before this, which has an almost identical scenario between Dorrigo Evans and Amy, where the emotion is so raw and powerful, this novel just didn’t cut it. I think part of this insincerity comes from the fact that Hendricks states throughout the novel that he believes love is purely a chemical reaction in the brain; he reduces it completely to its physiology. This is obviously supposed to be his coping mechanism for losing Luisa but his obsessive analysing and theorising ruins the story for me. Maybe I’m the sentimental one (in fact, that probably is the case!) but this story, or this way of telling it, just didn’t do it for me.
The best part of this book was the ending. Not because I had reached the end (that seems a little harsh, it wasn’t that bad!) but for the letter that Dr Hendricks’ father wrote to him before he died. It is touching and, to me, the most authentic part of the whole book. There is a sort of twist to the story regarding Hendricks’ father, which I won’t reveal (in case you do decide to read this book after my rather scathing review) but it makes the letter even more poignant. His father describes his struggle to comprehend civilisation after what he has experienced in the war:
the truth is I don’t understand anything any more. This is not the world I thought it was going to be. You’ll have to make your own way in the mess we leave. Be kind to other people. Be good to your mother.
It is honest and unpretentious and it is a glimpse of what I remembered from ‘Birdsong’. It’s just a shame that I had to read to the end to find it.