It has come to my notice in the last couple of years that I really enjoy historical fiction, yet if you’d asked me that ten years ago I might have been quite sniffy about it, thinking of it as a more poular rather than literary genre. Perhaps it’s because the book I have been birthing over the last year or so (almost ready to send out, yay!) is largely historical, so I’ve grown acutely aware of the additional challenges of research, of picturing a scene in my mind’s eye that doesn’t include all the day to day contemporary things we take for granted, as well as trying to create an authentic narrative voice, even getting the language right. It’s also something more basic than that though – many historical novels have really touched something quite deep in me. I’m thinking Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus, Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway, even Agatha Christie. And many of the books that I think of as my all-time favourites are also historical – Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety and Andrea Levy’s Small Island all look back as a way of making sense of the now. History can teach us a great deal.
A dear friend gave me Helen Dunmore’s final novel, published posthumously, Birdcage Walk, for my birthday last year and I have only just got around to reading it. I had read some quite mixed reactions, some feeling it wasn’t her best or that it had not been as well edited as it might have been, which is understandable. I am not familiar with Dunmore’s other novels so don’t have a view on how it compares. It meant I approached it with some trepidation, however.
The novel is set in 1792 in Bristol, with the aftermath of the French Revolution playing out across the Channel, and its effects beginning to be felt in England. The central character Lizzie is married to a builder John Diner Tredevant, known as Diner, who has invested heavily (financially and emotionally) in the construction of a grand terrace in the city. The couple’s future depends on the success of the project, but political unrest has created economic uncertainty and the half-built, never-to-be-completed terrace is a motif for the couple’s relationship. As financial pressure builds, stress begins to expose the fragile foundation of Diner’s personality, cracks are revealed in their marriage and questions begin to arise about the mysterious circumstances of Diner’s first wife who died suddenly in France.
Lizzie comes from a more middle-class intellectual background; her mother is a Radical writer and supporter of the insurgency against the monarchy in France, as is Lizzie’s stepfather Augustus. They were not fully in support of Lizzie’s marriage, and it is hinted that they feared Diner was her intellectual inferior, and that she would not thrive with him, as well as being of a different mind to them politically. It seems that Lizzie married him because he represented a solidity and security that she never had growing up; she clearly holds Augustus in some contempt at times, his intellectual pursuit seems ineffectual to her. When Lizzie’s mother dies in childbirth, becoming pregnant at a dangerously late stage in her life, everything in Lizzie’s world begins to break down.
I can see why some regard the novel as somehow ‘incomplete’ – some of the characters are not fully drawn, Diner, for example. For me, his behaviour was not entirely coherent and I did not fully ‘get’ what drew him and Lizzie together, they seem so un-alike, and this is slightly problematic as the entire plot turns on the dynamics of their relationship. A quote from the Daily Mail on the jacket describes it as a “psychological thriller”, but that’s not quite how it felt to me. If anything, it’s more a book about character than plot.
Like the book I am working on, it is also about a journey of discovery, of uncovering the past and of the fleeting part we all play in history and how individual stories are so easily lost.
Whether or not Birdcage Walk is Dunmore’s best (if I could write this well, I’d be happy!) it has made me want to explore her other work as I thoroughly enjoyed it.
How do you feel Birdcage Walk compares with Dunmore’s other novels?
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