Helen Dunmore’s final novel, Birdcage Walk, is a piece of historical fiction set in 1792, in Bristol. At this time, ‘Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence’. The Observer calls Birdcage Walk ‘the finest novel Dunmore has written’. The Daily Telegraph deem it ‘Quietly brilliant… among the best fiction of our time.’ The Guardian believe it to be ‘a blend of beauty and horror evoked with such breathtaking poetry that it haunts me still’. The novel was longlisted for the Walter Scott Prize, and has been rather highly praised by critics, as the above quotes demonstrate.
Lizzie Fawkes, the protagonist of the novel, is the product of a childhood lived in Radical circles, ‘where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism’. Lizzie has recently married a property developer named John Diner Tredevant, who is ‘heavily invested’ in their city’s housing boom, and has ‘everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war’. He is displeased with Lizzie’s ‘independent, questioning spirit’, and is of the conviction that she should live and behave only in the manner he wishes her to. In 1793, war was declared between Britain and France, which led to the collapse of the housing boom in Bristol, causing many builders and developers to go bankrupt; this, of course, affects Lizzie and John.
The novel opens in present day Bristol, where a dogwalker comes across an overgrown grave: ‘If my friends hadn’t decided that I should have a dog I would never have opened the gate and gone into the graveyard. I always took the paved path between the railings. Birdcage Walk, it’s called, because of the pleached lime trees arching overhead on their cast iron frame.’ The grave which his dog, Jack, first discovers ‘leaned only slightly backwards’. The name inscribed upon it is Julia Elizabeth Fawkes, an eighteenth-century writer. The narrator is able to find no information about her whatsoever online, and goes to an open day at her known residence in order to ask an archivist what they are able to find out.
The novel proper begins with rather a chilling chapter. It begins: ‘He must have shut his eyes. When he opened them, there she was. She lay as he had left her, under a tree in the brambles and ivy. He had laid her out straight, and crossed her hands, and then he had wrapped his coat about her head. He had known that she would stiffen in a few hours, and that he would not want to see her once again. There she was. No one had come; he’d known that no one would come. It was his luck. There were no marks where he had dragged her, because he had lifted her in his arms and carries her.’ This man, unknown to us at first, then digs a grave and buries her, before scurrying away. The second chapter of the novel, and the majority of those which follow, are narrated by Lizzie, whose mother is a writer.
The descriptions in Birdcage Walk are sometimes inventive, and have a vivacity to them. For instance, Dunmore writes: ‘But the moon was inside too. It had got into the bedroom while we were sleeping. Its light walked about over the bedstead, over the chest, the basin in its stand and the blue-and-white jug. It was a restless thing and I could not lie still.’ I found the first couple of chapters, and the differentiation between tone, character, and period intriguing, but I soon found myself losing interest in the story once Lizzie’s account began. Her voice felt too settled, and I could not invest enough empathy in her plight. The dialogue felt forced, unnatural, and repetitive, and the prose and plot were too slow, and plodded along. Julia Fawkes was a real person, but I felt as though Dunmore had no hold upon her character. Whilst Dunmore often excels in her novels with her descriptions of the natural world, and in setting scenes, I did not quite feel as though this was the case here.
Birdcage Walk deals with ‘legacy and recognition – what writers, especially women writers, can expect to leave behind them’. This has an added poignancy, given Dunmore’s untimely death last year. Unfortunately, whilst I have very much enjoyed several of Dunmore’s novels in the past, Birdcage Walk neither lived up to its premise, nor to its praise, for me. I am all for slow novels, but I like my historical fiction to be highly absorbing, and well anchored in the period. Unfortunately, Birdcage Walk was neither.