Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore

Rating: 5 stars

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This is the final offering from the wonderful novelist and poet, Helen Dunmore, who died last June. And what a fine last novel it is.

I was gripped right from the outset when the author explains what led her into wanting to find out more about one of the characters, Julia Elizabeth Fawkes; after seeing her grave in a Bristol cemetery, with the inspiring headstone, bearing the words “Her words remain our Inheritance”, Dunmore first wanted to find out more about her and then imagined the world she inhabited.

Julia is central to the novel, but it is her daughter, Lizzie, whose moves we follow intensely, taking us with her on a dangerous journey with her husband John Diner Tredevant. Diner, as he’s known, is a property developer in Bristol in 1792, just as the French Revolution is coming to a head, with disastrous consequences for the Bristol property market, while Lizzie, his young wife, comes from a revolutionary background, and at first supports the changes in France. Lizzie is torn between her feelings of duty and loyalty, both to her husband and to her mother and stepfather Augustus. When Julia dies after giving birth to Lizzie’s half-brother Thomas, Lizzie feels compelled to take care of him, despite her knowledge that Diner strongly disagrees with her. Over the months that follow, matters come to a head for Lizzie and her loved ones, and she finally learns more about Diner and his first wife, who was French, and whom he’s told her has died in France.

As ever, Dunmore creates fully credible characters, from Lizzie and Diner to their servant girl Philo, Julia and Augustus, their servant and companion Hannah, and Augustus’s friend Caroline Farquhar, who has plans of her own for baby Thomas. The background of the French Revolution threatens and rumbles, sometimes in the foreground and sometimes quietly in the background, making lives which are unstable already even more so. As winter approaches and settles, life becomes more and more arduous for Lizzie.

The descriptions of life in Bristol in 1792 are so vivid I really felt as if Dunmore had been there and experienced the cold hard winter days herself, and understood exactly how tough life had been for Lizzie, isolated in her brand new house on a street which Diner has been developing at great personal cost, both emotional and monetary. His schemes fail. In the wake of the Revolution, workers are laid off and not replaced, and his grand plan cannot be completed. His own house, built to be a show home of sorts, has its furniture removed.

Dunmore was noted for undertaking intense research, absorbing it and then using it to breathe life into every tiny detail in her novels. In The Siege she brought to life the appalling war-time years in Leningrad when hundreds of thousands of people were trapped within the city for long months. In Birdcage Walk, it’s the dual background of the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, with its creation of new levels of wealth and poverty, which comes to life in the pages. Diner’s increasingly menacing presence and Lizzie’s bravery are compelling forces, working together and against each other by turns. And we feel Julia’s presence through Lizzie long after Julia has died.

I shall miss Helen Dunmore’s piercing intelligence and humanity, and her ability to weave life and magic into imagined people in real situations, and real people in imagined situations. For now, it’s time to turn back to her earlier works, starting with Zennor in Darkness, and reread them, savouring each in turn.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

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