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“There must be love, even if it destroys us”

Death, fittingly and heartbreakingly stalks the pages of Helen Dunmore’s last book. The author, whose work gave so much pleasure over the years to many, had terminal cancer, and Birdcage Walk would be her final novel.

Birdcage Walk has a slightly curious structure, meant, I think, to take us away from obsession with what happened next, and to keep us aware of where we are heading towards.

A man of today, recently bereaved, looking in some ways for distraction and a way to fill his time, becomes interested in an old gravestone which hints that it belonged to a writer, of whom there is no record. He begins to look at an earlier history of Bristol (the setting of the book)

The gravestone belonged to a woman who was not just ‘a writer’ but a revolutionary thinker – the time is that of the French Revolution. The narrator of this book is her daughter, Lizzie. Her mother, Julia Fawkes, might almost be another Mary Wollstonecroft, and her second husband, Augustus, another Godwin. Lizzie, though, is not married to a revolutionary poet. Her husband John Diner Tredevant is in his own way a visionary : one ablaze with the idea of building, property and capital.

Dunmore’s book is a book of ideas and ideals, a book of strong and conflicting relationship, and also a thriller – though I suspect the reader will identify quite early where things are heading

Guillotine, Execution of Marie Antoinette. 1793 (unknown artist)

Visions of a better society for all based on those heady, revolutionary ideas which rocked the stability of society in this country and in France are set against the ideas of order and security. And the creeping in of doubts as some of the initial idealism of ‘liberté égalité fraternité’ – not to mention sororité – meets the fact that a revolution is rarely bloodless :

I could not explain it even to myself, that a man might set in motion such a lever and put an end to the world that lived inside another’s head. It seemed so monstrous and yet it could be done so easily. It made killing as simple as pouring a cup of water, There was no danger to the killer, or necessity to wrestle with a fellow creature who would fight for his life as hard as you fought to extinguish it” …….

“Think of it …To kill another human being is like crossing a river by a bridge which is then swept away behind you. You can never go back again

The central relationship in this book is that between visionary Julia Fawkes and her beloved daughter. Lizzie has fallen for a man who may not be worthy of her, and wants a conventional, obedient wife rather than the free thinker she has been raised to be. This is also a novel about how love can break, as much as make, a person.

I saw clearly now that it was not so easy to step out of the life which held us. No matter how far we went, we would take with us not only our selves but all the ghosts of our lives.

The novel is also one which is full of psychological tension. There are several ways an author might choose to create tension, each of which can work well, if properly done. Duncan means the reader, I think, to make the links pretty quickly between a shocking event which is described very early on in the eighteenth century section and who the people involved might be. So it is not the reader and their direct need to know ‘what happens next’ which is the setting on the tension knot. Rather, we are immediately lobbed the ‘something major happened’ in order that we should solve that ‘something’ Our tension is rather for the central character in the book, how they change, what changes them, and how they will make the connections as they come to understand what we already are sure of. It’s an empathetic tension she is creating


The Avon Gorge, looking out over Clifton c 1820, Francis Danby

One small cavil, but not enough to want to dock a star. The first person narrator of the historical section is not fluent in French. Yet, there is a conversation which takes place entirely in French, where she faithfully can recount everything a French speaking character says, even though she only picks out a couple of forcefully spoken and repeated words (which she asks someone else to translate) I have no problems with the forcefully spoken and repeated words but would defy anyone, spoken to a language which they were pretty lacking fluency in, to be able to make sound and memory sense of it! A moment which felt inauthentic, and jarred.

Finally, in a poignant afterword, Dunmore explains her fascination with small, hidden lives, and their effect on history, and her intention in this novel – which she began before knowing her own terminal diagnosis

Only a very few people leave traces in history, or even bequeath family documents to their descendants. Most have no money to memorialise themselves, and lack even a gravestone to mark their existence. Women’s lives, in particular, remain largely unrecorded. But even so, did they not shape the future? Through their existences, through their words and acts, their gestures, jokes, caresses, strength and courage – and through the harms they did as well – they changed the lives around them and formed the lives of their descendants

I received this as a review copy from Netgalley, and read it during my 2 month reviewing absence. It was with pleasure that I read it again, as I did want to be able to write a review which expressed my appreciation of  the book, properly

Birdcage Walk UK
Birdcage Walk USA