The Birds Fall Down (1966)
by Rebecca West
It actually took me just as long to read The Birds Fall Down(377 page) as The Recognitions (960 pages). The Birds Fall Down was West's last novel, so this is a good place to evaluate her contributions to the 1001 Books list, 2006 edition. Both The Birds Fall Down and Harriet Hume got the axe in the 2008 revision of the 1001 Books list. That leaves The Return of the Soldier and The Thinking Reed as her two remaining entries on the list.
There is a strong argument that The Return of the Soldier is a top 100 title on the strength of it having the first depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder (or "shell shock") in literature, in addition to a strong female protagonist and woman author. It's less clear that The Thinking Reed belongs. Based on my own post on that book, I can't make a case for it staying. West was also an important public intellectual who wrote non-fiction and criticism, so the 1001 Books project doesn't capture her full import. I've not read anything that would cause me to pursue her further afield. She is a significant 20th century writer, but not a life changer.
The Birds Fall Down is about a young Russian-English woman travelling with her exiled Russian Count Grandfather from Paris to the French countryside. While on the train they encounter a young Revolutionary, known to the Count, and it becomes clear that a trusted aide to the County is in fact a triple agent, betraying both the Czar and the Revolutionaries at the same time. He's accomplished this by using three different identities, a fact that only becomes clear during the train rider.
Based at least partially on the shock he experiences at the train-ride revelations about his trusted associate (the triple agent) the Count dies just after exiting the train. The rest of the book is occupied with funeral arrangements and the consequences of the discovery of the triple-agent. It sounds straight forward, but I was as confused during the intiial train ride as can be possible while reading a book that doesn't involve any complicated post-modern narration techniques. It's just three people sitting together on the train, but not until they got off the train did I figure out what had happened.