This is my review of Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore.
Set in Bristol against the backdrop of unsettling news about the French Revolution in which idealism turns so quickly to extreme violence, the central character Lizzie Tredevant steers a course between two different worlds. On one hand she has learned to be unconventional, unmaterialistic and free-thinking from Julia Hawkes, her radical blue-stocking mother and a talented pamphleteer on human rights. On the other, she is drawn largely by sexual attraction to John Diner Tredevant, a clever and competent self-made man who has battled his way out of poverty to become a successful property developer. The widower of a French woman, he is much quicker than Julia and her idealistic companions to see the ethical flaws in a revolution which brutally guillotines anyone who happens to be an aristocrat, priest, or sympathiser of the old system. He also appreciates how political and economic uncertainty jeopardise the Bristol housing boom and his debt-laden dream of constructing a grand terrace on the edge of the Clifton gorge, which forms a dramatic backdrop to the story.
Julia, step-father Augustus and family friend Hannah have all advised against her marrying Diner, who in turn does not hide his contempt for what he sees as their naïve theories and practical incompetence: “They tear down the Bastille, but can they build it again? Augustus would not be able to put a roof on a doll’s house…. Can he turn a lathe?…. Can he lay a flagstone floor? No, he depends upon those who can. He is as much a guest in the world as a three-year-old child”. Gradually, her loyalty to Diner is strained by his controlling behaviour, and her curiosity about the French wife she is afraid to ask him about develops into fear over a secret which he may be concealing.
Helen Dunmore knows how to structure a story with a double hook at the beginning: the mystery of a long-dead woman writer who really existed but left no trace of her work, and the reasons why a man is burying a woman’s body in a woodland clearing on the opposite side of the Avon Gorge from Clifton. She develops complex characters and relationships, although the poet Will Forrest is a little too good to be true, with a strong sense of time and place particularly evocative for those who know Bristol – it is intriguing to imagine Clifton as a raw building site surrounded by countryside. The narrative drive drags a little at times, but builds up to a gripping if slightly contrived, borderline melodramatic conclusion. This is a very readable work of popular literary historical fiction.