Helen Dunmore’s Exposure was one of my favourite books of 2016, so when I saw that she had a new one coming out last year, I knew I wanted to read it. The early reviews seemed to be very mixed, though, so I didn’t rush to get hold of a copy and it wasn’t until the days between Christmas and New Year that I finally got round to reading it.
I mustn’t have read those reviews very closely because I had the impression that this was a book about the French Revolution – but that’s not really true. The story is set in England and although events taking place across the Channel do have an effect on the lives of our characters, all of this is happening at a distance and is not the focus of the novel. The main theme of Birdcage Walk, according to Helen Dunmore herself and hinted at in the opening chapters, is the temporary nature of human life and the way so many of us leave behind very little evidence of our existence when we die. Dunmore states in her Afterword that she wanted to show that everyone has shaped the future in some way, by influencing those around them, even if they then disappear without trace. This is particularly poignant when you consider that while she was writing this novel she was already seriously ill with the cancer that would soon take her life.
But back to the plot of Birdcage Walk. The main part of the story is set in Bristol in 1792. Lizzie Fawkes’ husband, John Diner Tredevant (known simply as Diner) is a property developer who has started to build a terrace of houses with magnificent views of the Avon Gorge. With war against France on the horizon, however, this is a bad time to be trying to sell houses. Lizzie can see that her husband is troubled but is he just worried about the failure of his building project or is there something else on his mind?
Dunmore’s portrayal of Diner is excellent; he is a jealous, possessive and controlling husband who resents Lizzie having relationships with any other friends or family members apart from himself – but it is clear that something terrible has happened in his past, leaving him unhappy and disturbed. We find out very early in the novel what that something probably is, which takes away part of the suspense, but I think there is still plenty of tension in waiting to see when and how Lizzie will learn the truth.
The characterisation in general is very good; I found Lizzie’s mother, the writer Julia Fawkes and her husband Augustus particularly interesting to read about. Julia’s role in the story is brief, but she is one of the characters Dunmore uses to illustrate her point about a person’s influence living on after their words have faded away. Augustus, with his strong political views but lack of insight when it comes to the everyday things going on around him, also feels believable and real.
As I’ve said, the French Revolution is played out in the background with news reaching our characters mainly in the form of letters and newspaper reports. This means we don’t have the excitement of being thrown directly into the events of the Revolution, but it is still interesting to see things from the perspective of people who were less directly involved. Most of the novel, though, is concerned with more domestic issues: Lizzie’s personal relationship with Diner and her efforts to care for her baby brother Thomas despite Diner’s opposition.
I didn’t like Birdcage Walk quite as much as Exposure, but I still found it atmospheric and beautifully written. It’s so sad that there won’t be any more books from Helen Dunmore, but as I have only read three of them so far (The Lie is the other) I can still look forward to reading her others.