Birdsong, by Sebastian Faulks, wasn't an easy book. I nearly gave up on it at the start. I thought it was a war story, but there is a long preamble, set in prewar France, where our hero, a young Englishman, is falling for his boss's wife. It's not that I don't like a good love story, but I felt the emotions were over-exaggerated, not to mention the sex scenes! I just didn't see the two lovers as a likely pair.
Where the book's strength lies, though, is in its meticulous depiction of WWI, in the trenches and the tunnels and on the hopeless battlefields of Northern France, where the bodies are so pulverised by artillery shells that most of them can't be identified, where lice cause an incessant itch, and where friendships, brief or lasting, depending on your luck, are formed.
I'm sure I studied WWI in school, but it didn't make much of an impression. In the case of WWII, I suppose Saving Private Ryan gave us all a sense of the butchery that is war. But, until I read this book, I didn't really have any idea of what it was like for the soldiers in the trenches in 1914-1918. The depictions are so vivid that I don't think I'll ever need a movie for a better sense of the conditions that the soldiers had to endure.
There is a third part to the book, set more or less in the present day, which took me by surprise. Not sure if it really worked for me, but I suppose it ties the whole story together. I felt it was more a literary tool than an integral part of the story, and I don't like to be manipulated by an author.
All that said, I think Birdsong is worth the read, just for its central story of men and war.