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THE BEST BOOKS OF 1996 | FICTION

BIRDSONG By Sebastian Faulks; Random House: 402 pp., $25

December 29, 1996|GEORGE GARRETT

First published in England last year, "Birdsong," by former journalist Sebastian Faulks, is the story of a young Englishman, Stephen Wraysford, who goes to France in 1910 on a business trip, impulsively falls into a passionate and adulterous love affair and chooses to remain in France.

When the war comes, Wraysford joins the British army and by 1916 is in combat. He serves and suffers until the end. Both the publisher and any number of early reviewers have erroneously described the protagonist as the commander of a group of miners who tunnel under the battlefield to set off underground blasts beneath the German lines (in fact, he becomes an officer in the infantry). Some of the most vivid writing deals with the dangerous work of the sappers, and this element is a less familiar part of the story of trench warfare.

The accounts of combat both above and below ground, ringing with credibility and authenticity, are among the finest that I have ever read. The sensuous, affective surfaces, the details, the fully imagined physicality of life and death are so powerful as to be almost unbearable. That these things are borne with pride and honor by fully dimensional characters who engage us, first to last, stands as a tribute to the author's remarkable skill and tact and, at moments, dazzling virtuosity.

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