A beautifully controlled story of love and conscience, will and desire, which begins when a mysterious young girl arrives to take up the post at the seedy Hotel du Lion D'Or in a small French town in the mid 1930s.
I have read and enjoyed a number of Faulks' novels (i.e. not just Birdsong...) and yet for some reason, after my dad passed on a 'spare' copy he had acquired somehow, I allowed it to languish on my shelves in our apartment, moved house and allowed it to languish some more (approximately one year) on my new shelves in our house. I definitely enjoyed all of Faulks' other books but this one just never grabbed me. I have no clue why. Having finally read it, I have absolutely no clue why!
There are so many reasons why this book is so much more than it seems but it largely comes down to some superb characterisation and exceptionally sensitive writing. I don't remember reading a book with characters that felt so real - I found that each character was a complex blend of admirable qualities and flaws, just like they should be. Take Anne, for example. I started the book feeling almost protective towards her because she appeared so frail. Her fragility is something I felt continued and yet she avoids being a stereotype because her clear issues with love and trust. There were times when she demonstrated a remarkable strength and then others when I just wanted to shake her and drum some self-awareness and self-respect into her.
The most poignant moments for me, however, were those featuring Clare, Charles' suffering wife. Her private heartbreak and stoicism are devastating to read, sidelined as they are and revealed every so often through the eyes of Clare herself. For a character who is involved so little, she adds a balance to the story that tempers the eager tone of Anne. Ordinarily in stories with love triangles, the author takes the easy route and makes 'the wife' almost to blame for some reason. You know the type: the unfeeling/absent/non-Stepford wives who are peripheral and allow us to suspend our moral fibre just enough to believe that the 'true' love of the protaganists isn't wrong, somehow, but virtuous.
Interestingly, there are also some political thoughts and historical notes intertwined too and the era shows through most in the post-war sense of life and freedom that seeps into the character of Charles. For the most part it works but occasionally I found myself reading something that I felt wasn't quite made relevant and made a conversation stilted. Its great as a support to the characters' situations though and only serves to make the story more real.
Overall: This novel is outstanding - not necessarily because of the plot but because the characters are achingly well drawn and I found myself utterly believing in them. There are entertaining moments and some heartbreaking ones. This is very much a book about people and I would recommend it to anyone looking for an intense look at shattering love.
This was the second of my books towards the TBR Pile challenge and another great read - so far, its been a tremendously successful endeavour! :)