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One From the Archive: ‘Birdcage Walk’ by Helen Dunmore **

First published in 2018.

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. 9780099592761

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.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt ****

I read this wonderful novel whilst away in France for a long weekend, and found it a perfect book to absorb myself within as the rain streamed down across the beach outside.  I have been wanting to read Tartt’s work for such a long time, as everything which I have heard about her novels is marvellous, and I was therefore particularly pleased when April chose what is arguably her most famous of her three published novels as our February book club read.

Its premise intrigued me from the start:

“Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another… a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life… and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning…”

‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt

First published in 1992, The Secret History has become something of a cult classic.  I did not quite know what to expect when I began the novel, but upon reflection, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it quite so much if it had not unfolded in the exact way in which it did.  Broadly speaking, it is a crime novel, but the many labyrinthine layers of plot which Tartt has woven in mean that as a whole, it is much more than that.  She has laid one detail on top of another to create a rich tapestry, and this technique becomes apparent as one gets swept into the story.  The structure suited the plot so very well, and I liked the way in which the pivotal point of the novel came right at the beginning, and was then worked towards in the first half of the book.  The second half dealt with the consequences of Bunny’s death.  Throughout, particularly with the little clues which are dropped in here and there, it feels as though the reader is given time to build up their own theories about the story, and this consideration within crime novels such as this one works marvellously.

The novel, which takes place within an arts college in Vermont, begins in such an intriguing manner:

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

In this way, Tartt is masterful at injecting feelings of foreboding into her work, and there is a marvellously suffocating feeling of things yet to come which manifests itself in her words at times.  She is such an intelligent author – for me, this showed itself most clearly in the philosophical conversations which the characters often had with one another – and the reason as to why it took her such a long time to write is certainly clear.

Tartt’s characters all interested me, and the relationships drawn between them were so intricate.  I did not like Richard at any point, but he was certainly a marvellous choice of narrator, good as he was at systematically reporting everything which mattered.  Whilst he was part of the friendship group, he still remained an outsider of sorts, and this placed him in a great position to report upon the piece.  Tartt believably builds up the male narrative voice, and at no point does it feel overly feminine as novels by women can tend to.  Richard is not an overly masculine creature in his character, and this does come across from the start, but it seems like a trait which one is able to believe in.  In terms of the characters whom I admired and liked, I was drawn towards fellow student Henry and lecturer Julian immediately – perhaps merely because they were such enigmatic beings, and one could never guess what they were liable to do next.

Some of the imagery which Tartt creates is lovely; the sky, for example, is ‘disordered and wild with stars’.  Throughout, Tartt’s splendid writing and well thought out plot render The Secret History to be a fine novel, and I for one am most looking forward to reading more of her work.

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Book Club: ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt **** (February 2014)

I read this wonderful novel whilst away in France for a long weekend, and found it a perfect book to absorb myself within as the rain streamed down across the beach outside.  I have been wanting to read Tartt’s work for such a long time, as everything which I have heard about her novels is marvellous, and I was therefore particularly pleased when April chose what is arguably her most famous of her three published novels as our February book club read.

Its premise intrigued me from the start:

“Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another… a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life… and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning…”

‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt

First published in 1992, The Secret History has become something of a cult classic.  I did not quite know what to expect when I began the novel, but upon reflection, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it quite so much if it had not unfolded in the exact way in which it did.  Broadly speaking, it is a crime novel, but the many labyrinthine layers of plot which Tartt has woven in mean that as a whole, it is much more than that.  She has laid one detail on top of another to create a rich tapestry, and this technique becomes apparent as one gets swept into the story.  The structure suited the plot so very well, and I liked the way in which the pivotal point of the novel came right at the beginning, and was then worked towards in the first half of the book.  The second half dealt with the consequences of Bunny’s death.  Throughout, particularly with the little clues which are dropped in here and there, it feels as though the reader is given time to build up their own theories about the story, and this consideration within crime novels such as this one works marvellously.

The novel, which takes place within an arts college in Vermont, begins in such an intriguing manner:

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

In this way, Tartt is masterful at injecting feelings of foreboding into her work, and there is a marvellously suffocating feeling of things yet to come which manifests itself in her words at times.  She is such an intelligent author – for me, this showed itself most clearly in the philosophical conversations which the characters often had with one another – and the reason as to why it took her such a long time to write is certainly clear.

Tartt’s characters all interested me, and the relationships drawn between them were so intricate.  I did not like Richard at any point, but he was certainly a marvellous choice of narrator, good as he was at systematically reporting everything which mattered.  Whilst he was part of the friendship group, he still remained an outsider of sorts, and this placed him in a great position to report upon the piece.  Tartt believably builds up the male narrative voice, and at no point does it feel overly feminine as novels by women can tend to.  Richard is not an overly masculine creature in his character, and this does come across from the start, but it seems like a trait which one is able to believe in.  In terms of the characters whom I admired and liked, I was drawn towards fellow student Henry and lecturer Julian immediately – perhaps merely because they were such enigmatic beings, and one could never guess what they were liable to do next.

Some of the imagery which Tartt creates is lovely; the sky, for example, is ‘disordered and wild with stars’.  Throughout, Tartt’s splendid writing and well thought out plot render The Secret History to be a fine novel, and I for one am most looking forward to reading more of her work.

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0

Book Club: ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt ****

I was thoroughly delighted to finally get around to reading Tartt’s critically acclaimed ‘The Secret History’ published back in 1992, which fast became a bestseller and cult classic, and I am very glad it was a novel both Kirsty and I were able to treasure.

Somewhat reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, The Secret History follows young Richard Papen’s stay at an elite Vermont college with a closely knit group of Greek classicists prior to the revelation of a murder that we are aware Papen has played some part in. Tartt discloses early on through introduction to Papen vague details concerning the death of Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, a student among the group Papen later joins. We are immediately aware of such murder taking place, albeit ambiguously, therefore taking the novel in the direction of playing an almost inverted detective thriller. Thus, we are inclined to follow the events which take place onwards in order to come to an understanding as to why Bunny’s death took place, rather than how

Rich and aesthetic in detail, Tartt has crafted keen imagery with regards to the dynamics of both the group and ‘gleam’ of setting. My expectations were far surpassed by the likes of how certain sequences are described, especially concerning Hampden College and the behaviour of the Greek students. The characterisation is by far impressive and superb, and I thought Papen quite Nick Carraway-esque with regards to his isolation and loneliness. Much like The Great Gatsby – which is, in fact, referred to in the same sense directly by Papen – Papen seems to be the social outcast, the ‘external character’ whose perspective we are forced to inherit and through whom we perceive all of these characters. Not only is there an immense sense of pure scandal and unmistakable psychoanalysis, but there is also a riveting narrative and although I was never fond of Richard at any moment during the novel, I did learn to appreciate the structure of his narration and his ways of documenting events. I did find the character development particularly tremendous on Tartt’s part as despite my indifference to most of the characters she crafted – with the exception of Julian, perhaps, and maybe Henry – I was thoroughly enthralled by them all. I also thought Tartt’s diction with regards to the classic philosophoical discussions between them all entirely bewitching, and it made me regret leaving classical studies at A-Level.

More than anything I am thrilled both Kirsty and I enjoyed this book, and I cannot wait to read more of Tartt’s work and delve into more of her stories. The effort and tremendous feat with which she has poured into this novel makes it both a work of masterly talent and overwhelming opulence. I think Kirsty and I will both be picking up another work of hers very soon indeed, and I very much look forward to reviewing another one of her novels in the near future.

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