Book Review: Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

What’s it about?

It is 1792 and Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence. Lizzie Fawkes has grown up in a Radical household where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism. But she has recently married John Diner Tredevant, a property developer who has 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 the French Revolution reaches fever pitch, Lizzie finds herself alone with an increasingly dangerous Diner.

My thoughts

I don’t quite know what to make of this book. I loved the time period, I loved the strength of the female characters, and I loved Dunmore’s excellent depiction of coercive control in a marriage. Yet, the story as a whole seemed a little reserved to me. We’re left to assume that the reason for Lizzie’s clearly doomed marriage is rebellion against her independent and free-thinking mother, but there isn’t much to base this assumption on. There’s a brief passage on how they met, but the background to the relationship as a whole needed more detail.

I also found myself getting a little lost in the setting. I’ve been to Bristol once, and that was such a flying visit that I remember little apart from the motorway seeming very dusty. I know there’s a gorge, and a Brunel-built bridge, but this book needs more local knowledge. You need to know how those pieces fit together. There is a lot of affection for the area in this book, and I believe Birdcage Walk is a real place, but it needed more coherence when it came to putting it on the page.

I did enjoy the passages on the French Revolution, and contemporary political thinking. Dunmore clearly did her research, and what results is a neat incorporation of real events into fiction. Dunmore has form with the exemplary historical novel; have a look at one of her other novels, The Siege, for another. The paragraphs in French did test my rusty GCSE, but it wasn’t a stretch to get the gist, and there were often translations woven into the dialogue.

Some parts of the plot didn’t quite work for me, either. The mysterious first wife, Lucie, darts in and out, but there’s never enough detail to work out why she’s so captivating.A sort of Rebecca-lite, if you will. The relationship with Diner needed more detail, as I said above. Is Lizzie utterly smitten or is she just looking for a way out? I’ve got genuinely no idea.

On the whole, an accomplished historical novel from an accomplished author. Helen Dunmore died not long after this book came out, I think, and it’s rather poignant reading particular passages with hindsight (although the afterword says she was diagnosed after writing this book). It’s not her best, but it’s still very good and worth a read.

Would I recommend it?

Yes, I think I would. But I’d also look at her other work too (particular The Siege and Exposure).

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore is published by Windmill Books priced £8.99.

I received an advance copy to review thanks to NetGalley. Plot summary partly filched from Amazon.

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