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Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore


Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 7 November 2017
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Synopsis from the Publisher:

“It is 1792 and Europe is seized by political turmoil and violence. Lizzie Fawkes has grown up in radical circles where each step of the French Revolution is followed with eager idealism. But she has recently married John ‘Diner’ Tredevant, a property developer who is heavily invested in Bristol’s housing boom, and he has everything to lose from social upheaval and the prospect of war. Soon his plans for a magnificent terrace built above the two-hundred-foot drop of the Gorge come under threat. Tormented and striving, Diner believes that Lizzie’s independent, questioning spirit must be coerced and subdued. She belongs to him: law and custom confirm it, and she must live as he wants—his passion for Lizzie darkening until she finds herself dangerously alone.

Weaving a deeply personal and moving story with a historical moment of critical and complex importance, Birdcage Walk is an unsettling and brilliantly tense drama of public and private violence, resistance, and terror from one of our greatest storytellers.”

My Thoughts: Birdcage Walk is not what I expected. I was expecting more tension, more suspense, more action. Instead, it is a very understated story. There is very little action. What little there is leans towards the anti-climactic. The whole novel is very…British…in that not much happens and when something does happen, it leaves you underwhelmed.

Some might say that this simply means it is a thinking person’s novel, but Ms. Dunmore leaves very little for readers to ponder. Most of the novel occurs in Lizzie’s head, as she questions her divided loyalties and scrutinizes her husband’s actions. This means Lizzie does our thinking for us. Making things worse, there are large pieces of the puzzle missing, so as Lizzie frets about something – which she does a bit too often – we never understand the entire context. Her mother and stepfather are enlightened thinkers, but we never truly understand what this means. Frequently, Lizzie references something in her past, something we can only glean through brief and incomplete sketches. Thus, we never truly get to understand Lizzie, her relationship with Diner, or her dreams and aspirations.

The one thing that kept me reading the novel was Ms. Dunmore’s prose. From the opening prologue, I was swept away by the beauty of her words. Her descriptive passages are exquisite. Thankfully, given how much of the novel revolves around the gorge and its views, there are lot of them. This keeps a reader’s interest when it would be so easy to quit.

If Ms. Dunmore’s character-building were as excellent as her prose, Birdcage Walk would be a much stronger novel. Sadly, weak characters and a humdrum plot make it a snoozefest of a novel. The bloody revolution in France is a distant terror. There is no mention of Lizzie’s radicalism, and given her upbringing, we have no idea what drew her towards a more traditional relationship like her marriage with Diner. We never really get to know Lizzie at all. When you don’t understand the main character and when the entire novel is in the main character’s mind, it is a recipe for a slow novel. That is exactly what it is.

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