It’s now the second week of my work experience placement in the Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine office.
As I type this on my clattering keyboard, my wooden bookshelf sits opposite me, groaning under the weight of literature and film it has accumulated since it happily took up residence in my bedroom at the beginning of the year. (Only five shelves to contain the majority of books I own, plus my entire DVD collection. I mean, really?!) Crammed ledges are starting to feel the burden, as they are crushed slowly under the pressure of The Shelf.
Every bibliophile can spot The Shelf from a mile away – the scent of freshly bought written word, the sight of devoured, eagerly-page-turned novels, or the delicate and deliberate order in which the books are allocated a place. The Shelf exists for the sole reason of stocking the selection of your favourite worldwide literature, perused over your lifetime, each chosen carefully to permanently reside on this ledge. They have proudly retired here after earning their badge of honour: your thorough enjoyment. The Shelf is the very persona of your book passion. It is the essence of flowing words, effortless communication and graceful composition by gifted authors, celebrating their creative skill side by side. It is your Holy Grail of Prose. It is the victorious army of successful published authors, who have bravely risen from the grey smoke drifting across the battlefield of wounded writers who didn’t make the cut. It is…well, you get my drift.
Flanked by bestselling novelists, dramatic titles, French translations and histories of Modern Ireland, my most preferred book to date nestles quietly on The Shelf between its younger siblings, Human Traces (2005) and A Week in December (2009), both fleshed out by the same author, Mr. Sebastian Faulks, of whose wondrous talent I have developed a ridiculous amount of respect, not just because he hails from possibly the best city in the world.
I have to be honest. I did not stumble upon this masterpiece of a novel merely by chance. Birdsong (1993) was recommended to me by some well-read old friends: remarkably, they couldn’t explain exactly why they loved it, but just urged me to read it. Curious, I began my foray into the world of Stephen and Isabelle, never to look back. I was immediately hooked on the immortal and poignant tale of love and war, set amongst the roaring French trenches of World War One. Its simple cover – a black outline of a soldier and a crucifix – barely alludes to the captivating tale between its pages, but perhaps the magic of this story is its sweet integrity and the passion with which Faulks tells it.
The wonderful characters jump out from the pages, each with their own distinctive personality, traits and feelings. The author vividly describes his journey with them in the introduction of the novel. His well-honed voice speaks clearly and directly to the reader, as he recounts his exploration into their world. This personal glimpse of Faulks’ literary experience offers a unique and rare view of his writing career: from the perspective of the author himself. He reveals snippets of his reasons for Birdsong‘s creation – “in the opening section, I wanted the texture of the prose to increase the sense of social and sexual claustrophia” – and simultaneously evokes an honest and moving portrayal of a writer hard at work. “Sometimes I felt choked by rage and indignation; […] at other times, in the spring sunshine, among the headstones, I felt oddly tranquil and at ease, as though among friends. […] Could I really do this thing?”
The introduction is only the beginning. The story of Birdsong is one that has truly captured my imagination and set it on fire. I am always inspired when I read Faulks’ elegant narrative, see his three-dimensional characters stroll about in my head, and witness the flashes of genius present in his writing.
Out of all the books I have read over the last fifteen years, this novel has had the most profound effect on me, as a writer and as a human being. Faulks’ tale is sheer magnificence, which is why Birdsong has received the title of my Favourite Book. I may not always be so in love with the exquisite literature that pours from its pages, but it will always be there, waiting on The Shelf, for the day when its words will once again see light.