Reviewed by Harriet
I wanted to write about people whose voices have not echoed through time and whose struggles and passions have been hidden from history
So writes Helen Dunmore in the afterword of this, her latest novel. I’ve always vaguely known about her writings, but I could never remember if I’d actually read any of her many novels. Then, last year, her publisher sent me a copy of Exposure, which I enjoyed hugely and reviewed enthusiastically in Shiny 9. So when I saw she had a new novel out, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.
Exposure was essentially a spy novel, but one of an unusually delicate and subtle kind. Birdcage Walk is a very different kind of book. Set in Bristol in the early 1790s, it’s the story of Lizzie, the young daughter of Julia Fawkes, a feminist and writer of pamphlets in favour of the recent Revolution in France. It’s a convincing picture of a household of scribbling, enthusiastic radicals – as well as Julia and Lizzie, there’s Julia’s partner, the well-meaning, blinkered Augustus, and Julia’s dear friend Hannah, who looks after the practical side of life. There’s never much money – they live in rented rooms – but everyone is buoyed up by their sense of absolute rightness and enthusiasm for social change. Everyone, that is, apart from Lizzie, who has rebelled against this fervid atmosphere and recently married John Diner Tredevant, an attractive and clever young man who is set to make his fortune from property developing. Needless to say the family do not approve, but Lizzie defends him: “He acts. He makes his mark. He wants to build rather than destroy. Is that so very wrong?”
But Diner, as he asks Lizzie to call him, is not all he seems. Certainly he has a passion for Lizzie, but we see from the start that it is dangerously possessive. He is deeply jealous of her mother, to whom she is still very close, and resents her frequent visits to her family. He has black moods, and is rarely communicative. Although he has told Lizzie he had been married before to a French girl, Lucie, who died in France, he will not discuss her. Clearly there is a lot going on under the surface, and he seems to have terrible dreams, but Lizzie is in love and wants to support him.
Diner’s current project is an ambitious one – he has begun work on a terrace of houses in Clifton, overlooking the Avon Gorge. He and Lizzie move into one of them, even though it is barely finished, in the hope that it will encourage more buyers. But buyers are slow to sign up – the threat of war with France is imminent and has affected the financial market. Diner is increasingly worried, and in deeper and deeper debt. And as events in France become increasingly violent and bloody, Diner’s own life begins to spin out of control, with disastrous results for Lizzie and his marriage.
I really liked the way the novel was structured. After a sort of double prologue, the significance of which will not appear until almost the end, all the action comes to us through Lizzie’s filtering consciousness. But as always happens with the best first-person narratives, Lizzie is not as anxious as the reader soon becomes about Diner’s moods and his sometimes strange behaviour. She has thrown herself into this relationship partly as a rebellious act but also because she is genuinely besotted with this man and wants to think only the best of him. It takes time for her to admit to her feelings of disquiet but she has no idea what secrets he is concealing. She knows of course that he is deeply worried about bankruptcy, as his buyers drop off one by one and the banks refuse to lend any more money, until his whole glorious terrace takes on the appearance of a stark ruin, with unmade roads and roofless houses open to the elements. There’s a terrifying scene where he takes her to one of the unfinished houses and shuts them both inside an underground cellar, telling her they may have to come and live here to escape his creditors. But there’s a whole other dimension to Diner’s past which is only revealed after a couple of chance meetings open Lizzie’s eyes. After proceeding relatively quietly and gently at first, the novel in its latter part ramps up the tension to such a level that at one point I wasn’t sure if I could go on with it.
The period in which the novel is set, the early 1790s, is one I’m very familiar with, and I couldn’t fault the historical research. Julia Fawkes, the radical scribbling feminist, clearly owes much to the great Mary Wollstonecraft both in her career and in the circumstances of her life. The whole complexity of contemporary attitudes to the events in France, moving from celebratory excitement to increasing horror at the escalating bloodshed is well conveyed. And the town of Bristol, where I once lived (though sadly not in a Georgian terrace overlooking the Gorge) comes vividly to life and almost becomes a character in its own right. Excellent novel, highly recommended.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk (Hutchinson, 2017). 978-0091959401, 416pp., hardback.
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