I have to admit that I haven’t read any of Sebastian Faulks previous novels.Birdsong has been sitting on my bookshelf for years and I just haven’t got round to reading it! As I love historical fiction when I saw Faulks new novel I decided to give it a try. The blurb tells of an English doctor, Robert Hendricks, visiting a small island off the coast of France to see a mysterious man who seems to know more about his past than Hendricks himself. Spanning the 1940s to the 1980s I was curious to see how the story would unfold.
Robert is effected greatly by his traumatic childhood and the two wars. His father was killed in the first war and his childhood was haunted by this loss, then he was thrown into fighting the second war, uncertain whether he would continue to train as a doctor once he left the army. Present day Robert is a loner, he lives a solitary life apparently passing between hotels, sleeping with prostitutes and a married woman, scared that she will leave her husband. He is obsessed with his work and yet embarrassed by his past work. He is not a very likeable character, he comes across as jaded and judgmental, understandable because of his life experiences but quite a difficult character to read.
I did enjoy the first half of this book, the unusual characters, the description, the movement between different times – Roberts childhood, his experience in the war, his work as a young doctor and then going to visit Pereira on the island. However for me, the book stalled about half way through. I felt that the twists that were meant to keep the momentum of the book going weren’t impactful enough, the romance within the book wasn’t unique or special and none of the characters were likeable enough, or even quirky/real/intriguing enough if Faulks didn’t want them to be likeable. I also found the repeated visits to the Island and the retelling of events a little monotonous. There was too much repetition. I lost my way by the end of the book and wasn’t that interested in the ending.
I did enjoy the historical detail and the information about psychoanalysis and its progress after world war one. It was interesting the way that the various cases Robert had come across were interconnected with his present day experiences. As an unreliable narrator Robert worked very well, I never knew which sections of the narrative to trust.
The final twist in the book was good, but I didn’t feel enough interest in the characters to be truly hooked. I thought that it was a very contemplative book, at times emotional. I just wasn’t drawn into the world of the characters enough. I didn’t feel connected to them. I enjoyed the writing style and the locations, but the themes were often too hard going, the characters too despairing and wooden, the overall arc too bleak for this to be a really enjoyable read.