Book Review: Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

BirdcageWalkAbout the Book

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. 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. In a tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror, Diner’s passion for Lizzie darkens until she finds herself dangerously alone.

Format: eBook, paperback (416 pp.)     Publisher: Hutchinson
Published: 2nd March 2017                    Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Set in a period of political upheaval in Europe, Birdcage Walk is a multi-layered novel that provides an intimate and, at times, troubling picture of a marriage seen through the eyes of Lizzie Tredevant. Lizzie’s motivation for marriage to John Diner Tredevant is complicated: part passion and, seemingly, part desire for a place of her own following her mother’s remarriage. However, her mother, Julia, remains an influential figure in Lizzie’s life.

Lizzie is Diner’s second wife and I found echoes of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca as Lizzie is tormented with curiosity about her predecessor, Lucie, who she is told died in childbirth in her native France.  ‘I wondered if any of the men had known Lucie…They would have seen her. They might have spoke to her. When they saw me, perhaps they compared me to her.’  Like the second Mrs de Winter in Rebecca, Lizzie wonders if she can live up to Lucie’s place in Diner’s memory.  ‘I could not see into his thoughts. I was almost afraid to look into them, in case I found Lucie there. Perhaps he was trying to remake with me the life he had loved so much with her.’

As Lizzie learns more about Lucie, doubts about the circumstances of Diner’s first marriage start to surface – doubts the reader may have shared since the opening of the novel. Though this element of mystery runs throughout the novel, it is only one of a number of ideas the book engages with.

For instance, the novel explores the contrast between those who can be categorised as doers or makers – like Diner – and those whose currency is ideas – like Augustus and Lizzie’s mother, Julia. As Diner says about Augustus: “Can he lay a flagstone floor? No. He depends upon those who can. He is as much a guest in the world as a three-year-old child.”

Lizzie moves between the two worlds, recognising the difference in belief and outlook that separates them. ‘Diner lay in the daylight world of building, land and money. His imagination went into stone.’

Lizzie’s husband, John Diner Tredevant is a wonderfully complex creation – if it’s not too much of a cliché, he’s a real Jekyll and Hyde character. On the one hand he is entrepreneurial, single-minded, astute, a self-made man, appreciative of craft skills.  ‘He was lit up all through those weeks of early summer. He could see the stone curve of the terrace shaping itself according to his vision and he did not care how hard he drove the men’.

On the other, he is moody, prone to jealousy, possessive, secretive, a hard taskmaster, a man with, one senses, pent-up anger lying just below the surface. Although outwardly loving towards Lizzie, his behaviour shares many of the characteristics of what we would now recognise as coercive control. Added to which, of course, the law considers Lizzie a chattel of her husband. As Diner reminds her, “You have nothing of your own. You are my wife. All that you have belongs to me. All that you are belongs to me.”

For Augustus and Julia, and those who share their radical views, the initial events of the French Revolution provide a concrete example of the people exercising their rights.  ‘Human beings really were capable of uniting to defeat tyranny and injustice. A new order could be created, based on the rights of man. And woman too… .Everything they had dreamed of and written about was coming to pass, not two hundred miles from London.

But as events in France spiral out of control, Augustus and Julia struggle to reconcile their beliefs with the bloodshed and killings. Lizzie gets closer to home than she imagines when she observes to Diner, ‘Once you have taken one life, why not any number? What is to protect you from evil then?…Think of it, Diner. To kill another human being is like crossing a river by a bridge which is then swept away behind you. You can never go back again.’

Diner, with his customary shrewdness, foresees how events in France will create upheaval across Europe and threaten war. Before long, his building scheme and the precarious finances on which it is based, is in jeopardy. “It is this damned uncertainty!” he burst out. “There is no reason in it. It is uncertainty which is killing the market. If there is war with France – no one knows, and so no one will act.” And desperate situations can breed desperate acts as the reader will discover.

Some reviewers have described the novel as ‘slow’, perhaps because the mystery contained with the story takes a long time to play out alongside the other story lines. I would instead categorise the novel’s pace as measured or considered, giving plenty of opportunity to appreciate some of the great writing: ‘My mother was the spinning jenny who span out words to clothe the ideas that burst and bubbled in their brains.’  My one reservation about the novel was the prologue, set in the present day, which seems to serve little purpose.

This is the first novel I’ve read by Helen Dunmore but, on the strength of Birdcage Walk, I will definitely seek out her other books. In her Afterword, the author writes that, ‘The question of what is left behind by a life haunts the novel.’ Helen Dunmore’s untimely death earlier this year sadly means there will be no more books from this talented author but, as far as ‘what is left behind by a life’, in her case it is a legacy of intriguing, thoughtful literature.

I received an advance reader copy courtesy of NetGalley and publishers, Hutchinson, in return for an honest review.

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Helen DunmoreAbout the Author

Helen Dunmore was born in December 1952, in Yorkshire, the second of four children. She studied English at the University of York, and after graduation taught English as a foreign language in Finland. During the 1980s and early 1990s, she taught poetry and creative writing, tutored residential writing courses for the Arvon Foundation and took part in the Poetry Society’s Writer in Schools scheme, as well as giving readings and workshops in schools, hospitals, prisons and every other kind of place where a poem could conceivably be welcome. She also taught at the University of Glamorgan, the University of Bristol’s Continuing Education Department and for the Open College of the Arts.

Helen published poetry, short stories and novels before her untimely death in June 2017. Her third novel, A Spell of Winter, won the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction in 1996 and her seventh novel, The Siege (2001) was shortlisted both for the Whitbread Novel Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction.

4 thoughts on “Book Review: Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

  1. Great review, Cathy. I shared your reservations about the prologue which felt a little clunky to me. I’m a huge fan of Dunmore’s writing. She’s only put one foot wrong for me – Counting the Stars, her novel about Catullus. I hope you go on to read more of her work.

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      1. Yes, I found it very moving to read in the Afterword of the book that at the time she was writing it she didn’t know how seriously ill she was but she thought that its dark themes may have been subconscious.

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