Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Birdcage Walk

Blurb:

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.

My thoughts:

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*

Amazon UK
Amazon US

My Week in Books: 8 November 2017

This Week in Books is a weekly round-up hosted by Lypsyy Lost & Found, about what I’ve been reading Now, Then & Next.

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A similar meme,  WWW Wednesday is run by Taking on a World of Words.

Now: I’m currently reading two books from my TBR shelves:

Victoria: a Life by A N Wilson. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a couple of years and watching the BBC’s version of Daisy Goodwin’s Victoria made me get this down from the shelves and start reading. My copy is a hardback book, long (over 650 pages) and rather awkward and heavy to hold so I’m taking my time reading it in short sections.

Victoria: A Life

 

I’m also reading  The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson, a novel of jealously, rivalry and the dangerous power of obsession. Looking through my TBR shelves this one caught my eye. I’ve only read a few chapters and it’s looking good.

The Other Side of the BridgeBlurb:

Two brothers, Arthur and Jake Dunn, are the sons of a farmer in the mid-1930s, when life is tough and another world war is looming. Arthur is reticent, solid, dutiful and set to inherit the farm and his father’s character; Jake is younger, attractive, mercurial and dangerous to know – the family misfit. When a beautiful young woman comes into the community, the fragile balance of sibling rivalry tips over the edge.

Then: I’ve recently finished reading Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore, her final novel. My review will follow soon.

Birdcage WalkBlurb:

 

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.

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.

But as Diner’s passion for Lizzie darkens, she soon 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.

Next:  The Skeleton Road by Val McDermid, the third Karen Pirie novel. See the blurb and opening paragraph in my post yesterday.

The Skeleton Road

 

 

Have you read any of these books?  Do any of them tempt you? And what have you been reading this week?

New Books

Over the last few months I’ve been lucky enough to receive copies of these books for review. I’ve finished some of them and am currently reading a few, with more yet to start:

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore – first published 2 March 2017 – set in 1792, 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. 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.

The Square and the Tower: Networks, Hierarchies and the Struggle for Global Power by Niall Ferguson – publication date 5 October 2017 – non fiction. Most history is hierarchical: it’s about popes, presidents, and prime ministers. But what if that’s simply because they create the historical archives? What if we are missing equally powerful but less visible networks – leaving them to the conspiracy theorists, with their dreams of all-powerful Illuminati? I’m currently reading this book.

Fair of Face by Christina James – publication 15 October 2017. This is set in the Fenlands of South Lincolnshire, where a double murder is discovered in Spalding. The victims are Tina Brackenbury and her baby daughter. Her 10 year-old foster daughter, Grace has escaped the killer because she was staying at her friend, Chloe Hebblethwaith’s house at the time. Four years earlier Chloe had escaped the massacre of her family. DI Yates and his team face a series of apparently impossible conundrums.

Katharina: Deliverance by Margaret Skea – publication 18 October 2017.   A compelling portrayal of Katharina von Bora, set against the turmoil of the Peasant’s War and the German Reformation … and of Martin Luther, the controversial priest at its heart. The consequences of their meeting in Wittenberg, on Easter Sunday 1523, has reverberated down the centuries and throughout the Christian world. I have finished reading this book – my review will follow in the next few days.

The Last Hours by Minette Walters – publication date 2 November 2017. Historical fiction set in 1348 about the Black Death. In the estate of Develish in Dorsetshire, Lady Anne quarantines the people, including two hundred bonded serfs, by bringing them with the walls.  Ignorant of what is happening in the world outside they fear starvation but they fear the pestilence more. Who amongst them has the courage to leave the security of the walls? I’m currently reading this book.

The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths – publication date 2 November 2017. The fourth book in the Stephens and Mephisto mystery series. It’s Christmas 1953, Max Mephisto and his daughter Ruby are headlining Brighton Hippodrome, an achievement only slightly marred by the less-than-savoury support act: a tableau show of naked ‘living statues’. This might appear to have nothing in common with DI Edgar Stephens’ investigation into the death of a quiet flowerseller, but if there’s one thing the old comrades have learned it’s that, in Brighton, the line between art and life – and death – is all too easily blurred… I have finished reading this book – my review will follow.

The Hanged Man by Simon Kernick – publication date 16 November 2017. This is the  second in The Bone Field series, featuring DI Ray Mason and PI Tina Boyd. A house deep in the countryside where the remains of seven unidentified women have just been discovered. A cop ready to risk everything in the hunt for their killers. A man who has seen the murders and is now on the run in fear of his life. So begins the race to track down this witness before the killers do.

Library Loot

I’ve been reading lots of library books  recently and still have quite a pile left unread. Here are just some of the books I’ve borrowed that I haven’t started to read yet.

From top to bottom:

  • Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore. I haven’t read any of her books. The title of this drew my attention – Zennor is a village in Cornwall just north of Penzance, one of the places we used to go to years ago when Dave used to go rock climbing. But this book is different – it’s set in 1917 and U-boats are attacking ships on the Cornish coastline. D H Lawrence and his wife Frieda come into this novel, which won the McKitterick Prize in 1994.
  • Passenger to Frankfurt by Agatha Christie. I’m steadily reading Christie’s books, just in the order I find them. This is one of her later books and was written in 1970, published to mark her eightieth birthday. It’s a spy novel.
  • The Right Attitude to Rain by Alexander McCall Smith. I picked this one because I’d enjoyed The Careful Use of Compliments so much. This is the previous Isabel Dalhousie Novel in his Sunday Philosophy Club series and the third one in the series.  I’m looking forward to reading Isabel’s thoughts on moral and ethical dilemmas.
  • The Vicar of Sorrows by A N Wilson. I have a mixed reaction to Wilson’s books, some I like and some just turn me off. I liked A Jealous Ghost and Incline Our Hearts, but shied away from My Name is Legion. I also like his non-fiction – After the Victorians and some of his biographies. The Vicar of Sorrows is about a clergyman who does not believe in God and does not love his wife. It remains to be seen if I’ll like it.