It is 1792 and Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence. Lizzie Fawkes has grown up in Radical circles where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism. But she has recently married John Diner Tredevant, a property developer who is heavily invested in Bristol’s housing boom, and he has everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war. Soon his plans for a magnificent terrace built above the two-hundred-foot drop of the Gorge come under threat. Tormented and striving Diner believes that Lizzie’s independent, questioning spirit must be coerced and subdued. She belongs to him: law and custom confirm it, and she must live as he wants—his passion for Lizzie darkening until she finds herself dangerously alone.
Weaving a deeply personal and moving story with a historical moment of critical and complex importance, Birdcage Walk is an unsettling and brilliantly tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror from one of our greatest storytellers.
This is Helen Dunmore’s last book, but the first one of hers I’ve read, although Exposure is sitting in my Kindle waiting to be read. It’s historical fiction, although I think it’s mainly a meditation on death and the legacy we leave behind. And that is most poignant as although at the time she was writing the book Helen Dunmore didn’t know it she was seriously ill and she died earlier this year. She was the author of 12 novels, three books of short stories, numerous books for young adults and children and 11 collections of poetry.
As she wrote in the Afterword:
I suppose that a writer’s creative self must have access to knowledge of which the conscious mind and the emotions are still ignorant, and that a novel written at such a time, under such a growing shadow, cannot help being full of a sharper light, rather as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm. I have rarely felt the existence of characters more clearly, or understood them more deeply – or enjoyed writing about them more.
I was completely absorbed in this book as I read it. It’s written beautifully and poetically, moving slowly as the details of Lizzie and Diner’s marriage come sharply into focus. Birdcage Walk was first published in March 2017, so I’m coming a bit late to reading it and the drawbacks of that are that I’ve seen several reviews and have realised that (like many books) there are mixed opinions about it. I’ve seen criticisms that the pace is too slow, and that much of the plot is given away in the opening chapters. But I felt the pace was just right for the story and the subject matter, and I think the opening chapters set the scene and the theme of the book – that is, that life is transitory, that the individual vanishes, as it were, that no record is left of the lives of many of past generations, despite the effect they had on the lives of their contemporaries.
The Prelude reveals that Birdcage Walk in the present day is a paved path between railings with pleached lime trees arching overhead on their cast-iron frame. But back at the end of the 18th century it was where Diner had started to build a terrace of houses with fantastic views over the Avon Gorge (before the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge). When war was declared between Britain and France in 1793 this had a disastrous effect and like many builders and developers, Diner’s building work slowed and then ceased as he went bankrupt.
The novel shows the effect of the French Revolution on England through newspaper reports and letters, which I thought was effective casting light on the contemporary scene and showing the horror of what was happening across the Channel. The main focus, however, is on Lizzie. Diner’s repressive and jealous nature comes increasingly to the fore as his building work decreases, and the tension between him and Lizzie soars, accelerated when she discovers what had happened to Lucie, his first wife. The sense of foreboding and menace present in their marriage pervades the whole novel.
Many thanks to Grove Atlantic for providing me with an ARC copy through NetGalley.
My rating: 4*