Birdcage Walk

by Helen Dunmore

I have never read Helen Dunmore books prior to Birdcage Walk and I wanted to thank Netgalley and the publisher on the opportunity to review this amazing masterpiece.

The novel starts with a discovery of a long-lost headstone for Julia Elizabeth Fawkes. Research had resulted with few if any details, save that Julia was an author read by many, and the wife of Augustus Gleeson, a noticeable pamphlet writer of the late 18th century, a time when the French revolution was in its height and the reports of the bloody streets of Paris inflamed the anti-Monarchy British intellectuals such as himself.

When it was apparent that none of Julia’s Writings have survived, Dunmore took it upon herself to revive the old pioneer English woman writer, maybe seeing much of herself in her imaginary character. The story takes place in late 18th century Bristol, when amidst the speculation about war with France, the real-estate market has collapsed – sending the economy, the entrepreneurs and many workers to chaotic desperation.
The story (in Brief) is cleverly told by Lizzie Fawkes, now Mrs Tredevant, Julia’s sole daughter. Having brought up in a liberal house, encouraged to act and think for herself, to be opinionated and never timid, Julia has broken from that suffocating shelter that her family provided to marry a speculate called John Diner, a widower who has made a small fortune by building houses and has now undertook a grandiose project of building the houses overlooking the Bristol Avon Gorge.
As Lizzie discovers that not everything is as perfect as she had convinced herself, we learn about her husband’s jealous character, his endeavours which are slowly but surely going bust, and Lizzy’s warm relationship with her mother and Hannah (their servant and close friend from when she was an infant). The subplot is that of the French revolution, as perceived by random reports that make it in, whether by post or by newspapers, and how differently they are perceived by John Diner and by Augustus and his milieu.

This is an historical fiction, but branding it as such does it little justice. Dunmore has managed to bring life into characters that existed (or some have) in real life, with such intensity that makes you forget yourself, all set into motion from a small script on a headstone!
The shadow of Dunmore’s disease must have entwined this novel in grimness that is leaping out of the pages – but give this novel the true colour of life in England and Europe in the 18-1900s. It is a masterpiece, and I dare say – Dunmore will be missed.