Birdcage Walk – Helen Dunmore

Rating: 5 stars

birdcage walk.jpg

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

Find this book on Amazon

Advertisements

House of Orphans – Helen Dunmore

Rating: 5 stars

house of orphans.jpg

Early this June, when Helen Dunmore died at the age of just 64, I was reading her novel House of Orphans, published originally in 2006; it’s only now, nearly nine weeks later, I feel able to put into writing my thoughts on the book.

House of Orphans is set in Finland in 1901, at a time of political unrest and ferment, as the Finnish people struggled to resist the power of the Russian Empire and the ever-tightening grip of the Tsarist Finn leader Bobrikov. Eeva is the young daughter of a revolutionary and after being orphaned  she has been sent far from her home city of Helsinki to an orphanage to be trained for suitable domestic work. Local doctor, Thomas, a widower living alone, offers her work as his housekeeper. He is drawn to her unusual and thoughtful presence, and understands that she is no simple uneducated girl, but is intelligent, well-read and an independent thinker.

Thomas is a kind and unusual doctor, prepared to use both modern methods of medicine and old-fashioned remedies. His generosity leads him to help Eeva to leave his home and go back to Helsinki to return to her childhood friend, Lauri, and seek a different way of life, far away from the orphanage and domestic servitude. What she finds is love and constancy from Lauri, and from a new friend Magda, and bitter betrayal from Lauri’s new “comrade” in the political struggle, Sasha.

The harshness of Finnish winters is vividly described, along with the grim realities of young people living under a harsh regime and struggling to make ends meet. The kindness of Thomas shines through the pages, as we see him helping all his regular patients, as well as the orphans, living in their own strict regime, and Eeva. But Helen Dunmore has created a three-dimensional character here and we understand that he is not without fault, and that his own daughter feels betrayed by him. Eeva is a complex young woman, and I felt immense sympathy for her long struggles and relieved that she’d found the loyal support of Thomas, Lauri and Magda.

I felt that Dunmore had shown us a glimpse through a crack into lighted rooms in which they were all living and breathing. In some ways I wanted to know what happened next to the leading characters, so real had they become to me by the end of the book. But mostly I felt I’d been privileged to witness these scenes. That was enough, like looking at a famous painting and wondering about the real life of its subject.

Daisy Chapter and VerseReviewed by Daisy

Find this book on Amazon