Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
I think of Anita Brookner, Penelope Lively and Jane Gardam as some of the best writers of their generation, and of Helen Dunmore as one who followed in their footsteps. Their books are superior in every way, always intelligent and insightful and delicious to read.
I was shocked to learn only three months ago that Helen Dunmore died, just before the publication of her last novel, Birdcage Walk.
Helen Dunmore wrote, and had published, poetry and short stories before her first novel for adults, Zennor in Darkness was published in 1993. Set during the First World War, and imagining the lives of D H Lawrence and his German born wife, Frieda, who were living at that time in Cornwall.
Her novel Spell of Winter, published in 1996, won the inaugural Orange Prize for Fiction. Other novels for adults and children followed, often garnering nominations for prestigious awards.
Birdcage Walk tells the story of a young couple in the days just prior to, and during, the French Revolution. We know them as Diner and Lizzie, a young couple very much in love and optimistic about the future – at least on the surface. He is a builder, a speculator, designing and building grand terraced homes high above the shore of the River Severn near Bristol. Lizzie is the daughter of Julia Fawkes, a woman who writes about equality and the rights of women and the poor – radical stuff at the time. Julia’s husband, Augustus, is even more radical in his very public support for those attempting to overthrow the monarchy in France. Lizzie’s husband will have none of it, and bitterly resents Lizzie’s attachment to her family, and the political and social unrest they are part of.
The novel follow Lizzie through her days, and nights, as her husband becomes more and more unpredictable and their lives together more precarious. Diner has a past that is alluded to at the beginning of the novel, and is slowly revealed as the story progresses.
And that is all I am giving away! Birdcage Walk is an intriguing and compelling novel. The setting is fascinating, the story is both suspenseful and satisfying, the writing is sublime – a great book by a writer who gave us so much, and should have given us more.