This is my first novel by Helen Dunmore, a well-known British author of historical fiction. This was, in fact, her final book, as she died this summer of cancer at the age of 64. Her obituary in The Guardian notes that:
She knew she was dying only at the editing stage but suggested, in an afterword, that she must have known subliminally because the novel was “full of a sharper light, rather as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm”.
Birdcage Walk is about an 18th century family in Bristol, during the time of the French Revolution. Lizzie is married to Diner, a housing developer who hopes to build his fortune on a “terrace” of new homes. Lizzie is the daughter of Julia Fawkes, a writer and radical feminist. She’s free-spirited, like her mother, so much so that she’s chosen to defy her mother and enter into an early marriage.
To Lizzie, Diner is passionate and exciting when they meet, but she feels constrained now that they are married. Diner expects his wife to live within the confines of the home he’s built for her. He disapproves of her need for freedom, and her closeness with her radical mother.
At the same time, Lizzie is troubled by her husband’s first marriage. She feels she’s competing with the ghost of Lucy, the first wife. Although she doesn’t want to ask, she begins to feel Diner is hiding things from her.
As historical fiction, I found this book gripping and informative. I don’t think I’ve read a book that looks at the French Revolution through the eyes of British citizens of the time. They are worried about the impact of the Revolution on their own economy and political stability. They cheer for the cause of equality, but are concerned about the growing violence. And the political upset has the danger of dividing neighbor from neighbor – Paris is not very far away.
At the same time, much of this story felt relevant today. I could really appreciate Lizzie’s turmoil. She’s not a writer like her mother, and she’s trying to find her own path. She loves her mother but doesn’t necessarily follow her mother’s politics. She dislikes her mother’s husband and wishes her mother could appreciate the husband she’s chosen. Unfortunately — as happens much too often — Diner’s possessiveness forces her to choose between increasingly separate circles: her husband and her family.
There’s also an interesting subtext to this story. The book begins with a modern-day narrator who comes across Julia’s gravestone. The stone’s inscription suggests that Julia was an influential writer of her time, yet the narrator can find out very little about her, only her husband who was known to write political pamphlets. So while Lizzie is the storyteller here, it is her mother we are truly curious about.
I have mixed feelings about the book’s ending, which I don’t think does justice to the complex issues and characters that Dunmore describes.
Still, as both a work of historical fiction, and an interesting portrayal of a woman caught between family and marriage, this was a fascinating book, and one I thoroughly enjoyed.
Note: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from NetGalley and publisher Grove Atlantic. The book will be released on November 7, 2017.