Review: Birdcage Walk, by Helen Dunmore. Grove Atlantic: Atlantic Monthly Press.

Description (from NetGalley)

 

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. Tormented and striving 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—his passion for Lizzie darkening until she finds herself dangerously alone.

Weaving a deeply personal and moving story with a historical moment of critical and complex importance, Birdcage Walk is an unsettling and brilliantly tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror from one of our greatest storytellers.

 

My Review:

 

I think it is important to consider carefully the messages found in the beginning and ending sections of this book: Prelude, which sets the scene from a modern-day perspective, and Afterword. It transpires that Birdcage Walk is in fact Helen Dunmore’s Swan Song, and that she knew that to be the case. In the Afterword she gives us a concise statement of what she hoped to accomplish with Birdcage Walk and indeed with much of her literary work: “In this novel I am writing not only about a particular period of history but also about the ways in which the individual vanishes from historical record. This is something which has preoccupied me for many years.”

 

Birdcage Walk is a densely atmospheric tale brimming with a wealth of carefully delineated characters. Chief among these is Lizzie, daughter of British author Julia Fawkes and second wife of the enigmatic John Diner Tredevant. We know from the start (through the Prelude) that the story we are going to hear does not end well, at least for some. Thus a sense of foreboding shadows the story throughout. The story is eloquently and masterfully told, but does not always make for comfortable reading. Still in all, in retrospect this author delivers to us exactly what she promises in weaving a story of individuals caught in an intense period of history.

 

As always, my thanks to author, publisher, and NetGalley for providing an advance copy to read and review.

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