Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

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.

A French Trio: Mediterranean Summer; Eugenie; A Week in Paris

Coincidentally, three of my recent reads have been set in France, so I thought I would combine my thoughts on them into one French-themed post. It’s a good way for me to get through my review backlog too!

Mediterranean Summer by Jane MacKenzie was a nice surprise; a book I knew nothing about, by an author I’d never come across before, but one that I ended up really enjoying. It tells the story of Laure, a young art student who finds herself caught up in the excitement of the 1968 student demonstrations at her university in Paris. When the rebellion is over, with her future as an artist in doubt due to her involvement in the protests, Laure returns home for the summer to her parents’ house in the Mediterranean village of Vermeilla. Here, in the small Catalan community of her childhood, she is reacquainted with old friends as well as making new ones – and with the help of Robert, a lawyer, she begins to search for a way to rescue her career.

This is a lovely summer read; the descriptions of the fictional Vermeilla and the surrounding area are so beautiful I wished I could go and spend the rest of the summer there myself! There’s an interesting selection of characters to get to know too, mostly very likeable, but with one or two who could be considered villains. As for the historical background, I knew almost nothing about the Paris student protests in the 1960s, so I learned something new there, and I was also interested to read about the Nobel dynamite factory in Paulilles and the shocking lack of regard for the health and safety of the employees. I loved Mediterranean Summer and would be happy to try Jane MacKenzie’s previous novels.

The next book I want to talk about takes us further back in time, to the French Revolution. Published in 1917 (originally titled The Third Estate), Eugenie by Marjorie Bowen introduces us to two sisters, Eugenie and Pélagie Haultpenne. Pélagie, the eldest, is heiress to a fortune and, at the beginning of the book, is engaged to a handsome young nobleman, the Marquis de Sarcey. As soon as the Marquis sees her beautiful sister Eugenie, however, Pélagie is forgotten. Can he find a way to be with Eugenie without giving up his claim to the Haultpenne fortune?

I have read a few of Marjorie Bowen’s other historical novels and have found them to vary widely in style and quality. This is not one of the better ones, but despite the off-putting cover, it’s still an entertaining read. The historical aspect of the story is interesting; it focuses less on the Revolution itself than on the factors leading to it, such as the Estates General and the role of the Comte de Mirabeau. This is a novel that you would read more for the plot than because you wanted to learn some history, though. It reminded me slightly of Louisa May Alcott’s A Long Fatal Love Chase; it’s fun, as long as you don’t mind lots of melodrama, swooning heroines and an anti-hero who is “a creature expert in every vice, used to every dishonour, useless, arrogant, a parasite on the labour of others!”

Finally, I read A Week in Paris by Rachel Hore, a dual timeline novel. One thread of the story is set in 1961 and follows music student Fay Knox who is in Paris for a week with her orchestra. Fay has grown up knowing very little about her early childhood as her mother refuses to talk about it or to tell her what happened to her father, other than that he was killed during the war. However, when memories start coming back to her, she has reason to believe that the first years of her life may have been spent in France. Over the course of her week in Paris, Fay decides to find out the truth about her past – and is shocked by what she discovers. Meanwhile, she is reacquainted with an old friend, Adam, but could he also be hiding secrets?

The other storyline is written from the perspective of Fay’s mother, Kitty, who falls in love with Gene, an American doctor, during World War II. The two end up trapped in occupied Paris – and their actions during this period will have consequences that live on into the next generation.

I found this an enjoyable novel, after a slow start, though not as good as similar books by other authors such as Lucinda Riley or Susanna Kearsley. The 1940s storyline is much more engaging than the 1960s one, not just because of the drama of the war itself, but also because the romance between Kitty and Gene is more convincing than the one between Fay and Adam (and less reliant on coincidence and chance meetings). I really cared about what happened to the wartime characters and was gripped by the details of life in a city under Nazi occupation, but I wouldn’t have minded if the framing story involving Fay had been left out altogether.

Three very different books, but I found different things to like about all of them!

Thanks to Jane MacKenzie for the copy of Mediterranean Summer; the other two were both taken from the outstanding titles on my NetGalley shelf.

The Glass-Blowers by Daphne du Maurier

A glass blower, remember, breathes life into a vessel, giving it shape and form and sometimes beauty; but he can, with that same breath, shatter and destroy it.

The Glass-Blowers The Glass-Blowers was the book selected for me in the last Classics Spin at the end of August. The deadline for reading our Spin book is this Friday, so I’ve finished just in time! Although it has taken me a while to actually pick this novel up and read it, that’s not because I wasn’t looking forward to it. Daphne du Maurier is one of my favourite authors and I fully expected to love this book as I’ve loved most of her others. That didn’t really happen, unfortunately, but I did still find things to enjoy.

Published in 1963, The Glass-Blowers is historical fiction based on the lives of du Maurier’s own ancestors who lived in France during the Revolution. The story is narrated by Sophie Duval, an elderly woman writing her family history in the form of a letter to send to her nephew. Sophie begins by looking back on her childhood growing up in the Loir-et-Cher region of France as the daughter of master glass-blower Mathurin Busson. Most of her early memories revolve around her eldest brother, Robert, who is constantly getting into debt and finding himself in trouble. It is Robert who will eventually move to England and provide the link to Daphne du Maurier herself.

In France, meanwhile, Sophie and her other siblings – Pierre, Michel and Edmé – become swept up in the drama of the French Revolution. So much of what I’ve read about the Revolution is focused on Paris, so it was fascinating to read about the ways in which it affected the lives of those living in the countryside and in other cities such as Le Mans. The section set during the War in the Vendée is particularly gripping and vivid – probably because Sophie herself is caught up in the uprising and experiences it directly. Other major events happen in the background and Sophie only hears thirdhand accounts, which takes away some of the emotional impact of the story (I kept thinking of The Brethren by Robert Merle, another novel set in France which is written in a similarly passive style).

The distance between narrator and reader meant that I never became fully engaged in the lives of the Bussons and never felt that I had really got to know Sophie. Her brother and sisters were stronger characters, particularly Michel, who becomes a political activist and joins the National Guard, and Robert, who repeatedly reinvents himself as one business venture after another ends in failure. Robert infuriated me at first but he eventually became my favourite character and I found myself looking forward to his scenes as they added a spark of life to what I was beginning to find quite a tedious story.

One of the things I usually love about du Maurier is her descriptive writing and the way she creates a strong sense of time and place – and this is something that I thought was missing from The Glass-Blowers (apart from in the Vendée scenes, as I mentioned above). This hasn’t become a favourite du Maurier book, then, but in my opinion even her weaker novels are still worth reading. Now that I’ve read this one I’m planning to read Mary Anne, another fictional account of one of du Maurier’s ancestors, this time on the English side of the family. After that I’ll only have Frenchman’s Creek and Castle Dor left to read.

The League Of The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel After reading The Scarlet Pimpernel a few years ago I was pleased to find that Baroness Orczy had written a whole series of Pimpernel books. I slowly (very slowly – this is only the third one I’ve read in three years) began to work my way through them in chronological order, but as I haven’t been particularly impressed by either this one or Sir Percy Leads the Band, I’m now wondering if I really want to read all of the others.

The League of the Scarlet Pimpernel was published in 1919 and is a collection of short stories, unlike the first two books I read which were both full-length novels. I don’t often choose to read short stories but as I’m also in the middle of some longer, heavier books at the moment, I thought this collection would be ideal for dipping into when I needed something lighter.

There are eleven stories in this book – all set during the French Revolution – and each one involves a family or group of aristocrats whose lives are in danger. It falls to Sir Percy Blakeney and his friends (known as the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel) to rescue them from the guillotine, often with the help of some clever disguises, cunning deceptions and daring rescue plans. Although all eleven stories are entertaining, they do become very repetitive, and once you’re familiar with the way Sir Percy works they are also very predictable.

Most of the stories are too short to have much of a plot and their main purpose just seems to be to highlight Sir Percy’s various masquerades and tricks, but there are a few stories that are longer and more complex. My favourite was probably the first one, Sir Percy Explains, in which our hero agrees to help rescue a little boy who has been captured by the revolutionary Jean Paul Marat. Almost all of the stories are written in the third person, but there are one or two with a first person narrator, which I liked because it added some variety to the book. How Jean Pierre met the Scarlet Pimpernel, narrated by the loyal servant of an impoverished noblewoman, was one of these and another of my favourites from this collection.

I was a bit disappointed that, given the title of this book, none of the other League members apart from Percy have a big part to play in any of the adventures. Tony and Ffoulkes make a few brief appearances, and one story deals with the subject of a traitor in the League, but that’s all. There’s no Marguerite either – Percy’s wife only has a one-sentence mention in one of the stories – but we do see a lot of the Pimpernel’s enemy, Citizen Chauvelin.

From what I’ve heard about the Scarlet Pimpernel series, the quality varies quite a lot from book to book. This one is worth reading, especially if you like short story collections, but it certainly doesn’t compare to the original novel. If I do continue to read the series, the next book I come to chronologically will be I Will Repay, which I’m hoping I’ll enjoy more than this one.

The Silent Boy by Andrew Taylor

The Silent Boy “Say nothing. Not a word to anyone. Whatever you see. Whatever you hear. Do you understand? Say nothing. Ever.” These words are spoken to ten-year-old Charles on the night of 10th August 1792. This is the night the Tuileries Palace is stormed and the French monarchy falls – one of the defining moments of the French Revolution. It seems that poor Charles has witnessed the brutal murder of his mother and has fled the scene in panic vowing to do as he has been told and never say a word to anyone ever again.

The boy’s silence causes a lot of frustration for a lot of people, including Edward Savill. Savill is the estranged husband of Charles’ mother, Augusta, and is legally, though not biologically, his father. Augusta’s uncle, the wealthy and powerful Mr Rampton, is interested in making Charles his heir and has ordered Savill to bring the boy to him. This proves to be more difficult than expected, however, as Charles has already been claimed by Augusta’s lover, the Count de Quillon, who has come to England to escape the Revolution. The Count insists that Charles is his son…and he has no intention of letting him go.

The Silent Boy follows Edward Savill on his mission to rescue Charles from the clutches of others who have reasons of their own for wanting the boy. Along the way we learn more about Augusta and what happened to her on that fateful night in Paris. There are also some sections of the novel told from the perspective of Charles himself, describing his traumatic experiences in France and his adventures after he is brought to England.

I found Charles’ story both fascinating and frustrating. He’s clearly an intelligent and resourceful boy, but one who has been so badly frightened by what he has seen and heard that he is no longer able to trust anyone at all. His refusal to speak gives him power over the adults who are desperate to hear what he has to say, but it also makes him vulnerable and it’s sad to watch a child cutting himself off so completely from everyone around him. But Charles is not the only one in danger – Edward Savill is also in a difficult position, being used as a pawn by his in-law and patron, Mr Rampton, whose motives are always in doubt.

The Silent Boy is a sequel to The Scent of Death, which was the first of Andrew Taylor’s historical mysteries/thrillers to feature Edward Savill. I enjoyed The Scent of Death but had somehow missed the fact that a sequel had been published last year, so it was a nice surprise for me to see this one in the library. It’s not necessary to have read the first book before this one – the two are very different stories and set during two different Revolutions (American and French) – but The Scent of Death does provide some useful background information on the characters, so I’d recommend reading them in order if you possibly can.

I enjoyed this book but not as much as the other Andrew Taylor novels I’ve read. After the dramatic opening chapter in Paris, I thought the story became very slow and didn’t really pick up again until halfway through. The end was worth waiting for, though, as the tension increases and some surprising revelations are made. I do like Edward Savill as a character and it was nice to meet his daughter, Lizzie, whom he had missed so much while he was away in America in the previous novel. I never quite managed to connect with Charles, but I can appreciate that we probably weren’t really supposed to – the whole point was that Charles had built up a protective wall of silence around himself and wouldn’t let anybody break through it.

Now I’m wondering if there will be a third Edward Savill novel. I do prefer Andrew Taylor’s standalones, such as The American Boy and The Anatomy of Ghosts, but I would be happy to read another book in this series if and when he writes one.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

A Tale of Two Cities When I decided to take part in the Classics Club Spin last month, in which a book would be chosen for me from a list of twenty, A Tale of Two Cities was not one of the titles I was hoping would be picked. I have to be in the right mood to want to read Dickens and I wasn’t really in that mood. Expecting it to be a long and boring read, I thought it would be a good idea to start immediately so that I would have a chance of being finished by the end of December…

I actually finished it within a week and despite my lack of enthusiasm when the spin number was announced, A Tale of Two Cities is one of the best books I’ve read this year!

The novel is set before and during the French Revolution; Paris and London are the two cities of the title. The story begins with Doctor Manette being released from the Bastille after eighteen years as a political prisoner. Reunited with his daughter, Lucie, and returning with her to England, the lives of the Manettes become entwined with the lives of two young men who are both in love with Lucie. One of these is Charles Darnay, a former French aristocrat, and the other is Sydney Carton, an English lawyer. We follow these characters and others as they return to France where they become caught up in the dramatic events of the French Revolution – and the scheming of wine shop owner, Monsieur Defarge, and his sinister wife, who is never seen without her knitting!

This is the sixth Dickens novel I’ve read and my favourite so far. I find it interesting that everyone who reads Dickens has different favourites and least favourites; there doesn’t seem to be one book that is universally regarded as his best. I think part of the reason I loved this book so much was that in many ways it was very different from the others I’ve read but I know that some readers will probably dislike it for that same reason, so it’s really a matter of personal opinion.

One of the things that struck me about this book was the absence of humour, in comparison to the other Dickens novels I’ve read – and as Dickens and I don’t usually share the same sense of humour, this was definitely a positive thing for me! Of course, the French Revolution is a serious subject, so the more serious tone of the writing was quite appropriate. I also thought the characters felt more realistic and well-rounded than usual (if there is a comedy character in the novel, it’s probably Jerry Cruncher). My favourite character, which probably won’t surprise anyone else who has read this book, was Sydney Carton – although I didn’t fall in love with him until the last few chapters. I hadn’t guessed when we first met him that he would turn out to be so heroic and self-sacrificing.

I was also impressed by how tightly plotted the book is. The focus stays firmly on the main storyline which makes it easy to follow, unlike Bleak House or Our Mutual Friend which have more complex structures with lots of subplots and lots of long descriptive passages. In A Tale of Two Cities, everything feels relevant and helps to move the story forward. The novel begins with some of the most famous lines in literature (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…) and closes with some that are almost as well known (It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known). I’ve seen those final lines quoted many times before but out of context they didn’t mean much to me; now that I know who and what they refer to they have much more significance. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but the ending is heartbreaking. This is the first Dickens novel that has made me cry!

The Classics Club spin was a success for me this time, then. I do have some other Dickens novels on my Classics Club list and feel much happier about reading them now!

Sir Percy Leads the Band by Baroness Emmuska Orczy

Sir Percy Leads the Band This is one of the many sequels to Baroness Orczy’s classic historical adventure novel, The Scarlet Pimpernel. The story is again set during the French Revolution and at the beginning of the novel, in January 1793, King Louis XVI of France – now known simply as Louis Capet – has been found guilty of ‘conspiring against liberty’.

With their former king sentenced to death it’s a dangerous time for the French aristocracy, and Sir Percy Blakeney and his men are in France to help the La Rodière family avoid the guillotine. Knowing that his old enemy Chauvelin will be determined to track him down, a disguise is necessary – so Sir Percy becomes the fiddle-playing leader of a disreputable band of musicians entertaining crowds of revolutionaries in a tavern near the Château de la Rodière. This means Percy and the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel are ideally placed to be able to protect the family when the mob decides to attack the Château…but could someone within the League be about to betray their plans?

After reading (and loving) The Scarlet Pimpernel last year, I wanted to try another book in the series. I wasn’t sure which one to choose as I’ve seen a few different recommended reading orders, but I decided on this one as it is set immediately after the events of The Scarlet Pimpernel. I enjoyed it but it wasn’t as good as the original book. With all the action taking place in France, this means we don’t see anything of Sir Percy’s wife, Marguerite, which I thought was a bit disappointing as their relationship had formed such a big part of the story in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Marguerite was not a particularly strong character but I connected with her more than I did with either of the two female characters in this book, Blanche Levet or Cécile de la Rodière.

We do spend a lot of time with the other men of the League of the Scarlet Pimpernel. I remembered some of them from the previous book – Lord Anthony Dewhurst, Sir Andrew Ffoulkes and Lord Hastings – but there was also one who was new to me, St John Devinne. From the start it seems that Devinne is distrusted by everyone except Sir Percy and as Percy has previously proved to be so good at judging people and situations, the reader is made to wonder who is right and who is wrong. A lot of the novel’s tension and suspense comes from waiting to see whether he is going to betray Percy and the rest of the League.

Sir Percy Leads the Band was entertaining enough but I didn’t think it was anything very special and there’s really not a lot more I can say about it! Although I didn’t like it as much as The Scarlet Pimpernel it won’t deter me from trying some of the other books in the series at some point. Maybe those of you who are Scarlet Pimpernel fans can tell me whether it’s best to continue reading the series chronologically or if there’s another order you would recommend.