Helen Dunmore has been one of my favourite authors for many years. Her first novel The Siege was the one which drew me to her. A novel set in Leningrad during The Siege by the German Forces in World War II.
Birdcage Walk is also an historical novel set in Bristol against the back drop of The French Revolution, 1789 – 1799.
The novel was written after Helen had been given a poor diagnosis for cancer. It is therefore no coincidence that the story starts in the present day in a graveyard at the end of Birdcage Walk. A man and his dog discover a grave stone, overgrown with weeds and brambles with the name Julia Fawkes. He researches the name but comes up with nothing. This gives Helen the opportunity to weave a story around her.
Birdcage Walk is a real terrace in Clifton. In the novel it is under construction by property developer John Diner Tredevant. He marries Lizzie the daughter of Julia Fawkes. Julia is a woman a head of her time. She and her husband Augustus believe that the French Revolution can only be a force for good in the world. They are blind to all the violence and deaths happening over the Channel. Julia dies in childbirth and Lizzie is left to bring up her half brother. She loves him dearly but this brings conflict into her marriage. By marrying Diner Lizzie turns her back on her mother’s radical feministic beliefs.
The novel contains all the themes that make a good and very readable story. Destruction, Diner’s property project collapses and this contributes to the breakup of the marriage. Intrigue, what happened to Diner’s first wife? Death, both home and away. Finally there is romance and hope with the character Will Forrest, the romantic poet.
In an article written in the Guardian earlier this year Helen Dunmore is incredibly candid about how she views her own death at 64. She describes how a couple of generations ago 64 would be thought of as a good innings. But now we believe that we have endless years. As long as we eat and exercise well we will do enough to dodge the grave. She mentions Philip Larkin’s poem Aubade. In the poem the living leave no legacy unless it is self-delusion.
Legacy or the lack of it is an important theme that runs through the novel.
There is no such danger here for Helen Dunmore. Although sadly there will be no more novels she has certainly made an impact on the literary world and Birdcage Walk is a fitting legacy to a remarkable woman.