Saturday, August 05, 2017

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore, a tense literary novel about revolution, liberty, and legacy

Historical atmosphere and characterization are top-notch in Dunmore’s (Exposure, 2016) newest work of literary historical fiction. Although there’s little action, considerable tension develops as Lizzie Fawkes awakens to the truth about the man she married and his first wife’s fate—details that readers know from the start.

The setting is 1790s Bristol, England. Revolution is erupting in Europe, and Lizzie’s mother, Julia Fawkes, a writer who “attacked the majesty of kings,” belongs to a group of radicals watching their beliefs take form in nearby France. Lizzie’s husband, building-developer Diner Tredevant, knows that war will crush his ambitions to build a terrace high above the Avon Gorge. Diner has always resented Lizzie’s family and their free-thinking ways, and as money grows tight, Diner’s controlling behavior and paranoia become evident.

The graveyard scene from the novel’s modern-day prelude isn’t picked up again but pays homage to the many women’s lives lost to history. Knowledge of Dunmore’s recent passing, added to her theme of the legacies people leave behind, lends a sad poignancy to the reading experience.

Birdcage Walk, Helen Dunmore's final novel, is published this month in the US by Atlantic Monthly (it's been out in the UK since March). Originally it was slated to be published in November, but the release date was moved forward after the author sadly passed away from cancer in June. This review was submitted for publication in Booklist's August issue, which is just out.  It's my first experience reading one of Dunmore's novels, and I'm glad it was assigned to me.  For those who've read her earlier work, I'd be interested to hear about your favorite(s).

10 comments:

  1. Thanks for this review.

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    1. Glad you found it interesting!

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  2. How sad, and it must feel odd to discover a new writer with her last book...

    Just Finished Reading...The Handmaid's Tale

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    1. I've been meaning to read Dunmore's novels for some time, and even have a copy of Exposure sitting on my desk. I've read that Birdcage Walk isn't necessarily her best (although it was still very good) so I have some more reading to look forward to. It is sad that there won't be any more.

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  3. I've read Exposure and finished Birdcage Walk yesterday. Very different reads from a very talented writer. I enjoyed and would recommend both :)

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    1. Good to hear - thanks for the recommendation!

      I was just on her website looking around and realized I was wrong - I had read an earlier novel of hers, A Spell of Winter. It was an Orange Prize winner but for some reason I didn't recall it as one of hers.

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  4. Sarah, I've been struggling to leave a comment here; I must be doing something wrong. But I have to keep trying, because I admired Helen Dunmore very much and have been troubled by her untimely death. My favorite was and is The Lie among the four I've read (The Siege, The Betrayal, and Exposure. To me, each novel proves that a character's inner life is what causes tension in the reader and sticks in your mind even years after you've finished the book.

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    1. Sorry about the difficulties leaving a comment here, Larry (and thanks for persisting!). I'm sure it's not your fault but Blogger's software acting up. I've been thinking about your comment and how well it fits with Birdcage Walk. Also, although Julia's viewpoint isn't shown firsthand, you can sense her tension because it's obvious that Diner isn't the man she'd have chosen for her daughter, but she raised Lizzie to be independent and so accepts her decision. I only had a short word count for this review, but if I'd had more space, I would have mentioned how much I admired how Dunmore developed Julia's character. I'll be interested to hear your thoughts on this one once you read it. And I hope to read The Lie before too long as well.

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  5. I missed that she passed. That's so sad!

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    1. It is - she was relatively young, too, only 64.

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