Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

The perils of the prologue…

🙂 🙂 🙂

As the French Revolution is turning into terror over in Paris, Lizzie Fawkes is in Clifton in the south of England, where her husband is building an avenue of houses on the cliffs above the gorge. Lizzie is the daughter of Julia Fawkes, a woman who has devoted her life to writing pamphlets promoting the rights of man and the emancipation of women. Lizzie’s husband, Diner, is of a more traditional cast, wanting and expecting Lizzie to find fulfilment in the role of housewife. He is older than Lizzie and was married before to a Frenchwoman, Lucie. Lizzie loves Diner and wants to make him happy, but she feels increasingly restricted by his demands that she doesn’t go out unaccompanied; and he seems jealous of everyone else she loves, especially her mother whom she adores. As Diner becomes ever more demanding, Lizzie begins to feel herself trapped…

I so wanted to love this book, especially since it turned out to be Helen Dunmore’s last. In a rather moving afterword, she explains that, although while she was writing it she didn’t know she was ill with the cancer that would kill her, she realised afterwards that the illness must already have been spreading through her. So it is poignant, though apparently coincidental, that one of the themes she wanted to examine in the book is that of how “the individual vanishes from the historical record”, especially women, whose lives were so often unrecorded and forgotten.

Unfortunately, there are a few problems with the book that prevent it from reaching the highest standards. Firstly, the idea of discussing the Terror in France via those wannabes who cheered the revolutionaries on from the safety of England means that there is never any sense of emotional involvement in the events going on over in Paris. This is further exacerbated by Dunmore telling us about those events through letters and newspaper articles rather than taking us there. Of course, this is how people in England would have received the news, so in that sense it’s an accurate portrayal. But it makes those passages feel more like a history lesson than part of a story.

The second, and for me the major, problem is that Dunmore begins the book with a short series of prologue-like chapters which basically reveal almost everything that is to follow. So we know from the beginning that the building boom will collapse when war begins and the houses Diner is building will be a victim of that. We know that Julia is soon to die and her writings will be lost and forgotten, leaving no trace of her in the historical record. And we know that a man will bury the corpse of a woman in the woods – and although we are not told which man and which woman, it becomes blindingly obvious almost as soon as the story gets underway. Suspense may not be an essential feature of all books, but I suggest there ought always to be at least some doubt about how things will play out. Of course, we don’t know exactly how it will end, but the bits that are left obscured are rather minor in comparison to those that are revealed too soon.

Helen Dunmore

There is no doubt about the quality of the writing, and the development of major and minor characters alike is excellent. I struggled with the idea that Lizzie would have given up a life of relative freedom to marry a man with such strict, traditional views on the role of women, but we all do stupid things for love when we’re young, I suppose. Dunmore’s portrayal of the stay-at-home revolutionaries rings true, as does her detailed description of life in Clifton at this moment in history. But I fear that detail itself gradually became my third issue with the book. Everything is described in far too much depth, from haggling over the purchase of a shawl to what to feed a baby whose mother can’t suckle it. Each bit is vaguely interesting in its own right, thoroughly researched and certainly well described, but it all builds up until I finally felt I was drowning in minutiae, with the story sinking alongside me. I’m not sure at what point creating an authentic background becomes information overload but, wherever the line is, for me this book crossed it. And I suspect that’s mainly because the prologue chapters had left me in little doubt of where the story was going so that I had no strong feeling of anticipation to drive me on.

So the book’s strengths lie in the quality of the writing and the authenticity of the setting and characterisation, and for these reasons it is still well worth reading. But sadly, the problems I had with it prevent me from giving it my wholehearted recommendation, much though I’d like to.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Grove Atlantic.

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38 thoughts on “Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

    • It’s a pity because I loved her previous book, Exposure. I don’t know – I wondered if the editing hadn’t been done thoroughly because of her illness, but she says in the afterword that it was all done before she was diagnosed. It seemed a very odd decision though.

  1. Sorry to hear this didn’t live up to what you’d hoped, FictionFan. I agree with you, though, about the need for some sort of suspense; that’s what keeps readers going. Interesting point, too, about the distancing from what was happening in France. And about the details? It’s always hard to know how much detail to offer and how much is too much, But when there is too much, it can make a book drag a bit. Well, I’m glad the quality of the writing was up to standard. Not that I”m surprised at that…

    • It was a pity because I’d have loved for her final book to be one of her best. And I’m sure as always that some people will enjoy it more than I did. But those pesky prologues – it was like reading a lot of spoilers just before reading the book. However, I’m still looking forward to backtracking to some of her earlier books.

  2. I’m planning to read this one very soon – and am puzzled, as you are, by the heavy foreshadowing via prologues. I still expect I will enjoy it, though, given the quality of Dunmore’s writing.

    • I hope you do enjoy it – I’m sure as we were discussing yesterday I’m being even pickier than usual at the moment. Maybe at another time I’d have been less bothered by the prologues. But it did seem very odd – like reading a spoiler-filled review just before reading the book…

  3. Hmm it’s hard to find the right line between how much detail to give, I find literary books tend to offer way too much while commercial fiction leaves out important details to be believable. Sigh, a difficult balance indeed!

    • Thank you! I wondered that too but she said in her afterword that the editing was complete before she was diagnosed. However, there’s no way to know if her illness was already affecting her while she was writing.

  4. FF, I’m so sorry you’re having to end the week on another less-than-five-star read! You’ve made some great points, especially about NOT giving everything away in a prologue. I haven’t read this one, and frankly, now that you’ve reviewed it so admirably, I won’t have to. My TBR is safe, yeah!! Happy weekend to you!

    • Oh, well, they can’t all be 5-stars I suppose, though it would be nice! The prologue was strange in this one – can’t quite understand what her reasoning was. Have a great weekend, Debbie! 😀

    • I’ve only read one – Exposure – and I loved it. Although I was a bit disappointed in this one, though, I’m sure that’s got a lot to do with my subjective taste, so hopefully other people will enjoy it more. And I’m looking forward to reading some of her earlier books at some point…

  5. I was looking forward to reading this as Exposure was one of my favourite books of last year, but yours is one of several less than glowing reviews that I’ve seen now. I’ll probably still read it at some point, but will lower my expectations.

    • I loved Exposure too, which may mean my expectations for this one were too high, perhaps. I’m sorry to hear there have been other less than glowing reviews – part of me was hoping it was just my current news-inspired lack of enthusiasm in general that made me impatient with it. Oh well, I’m still looking forward to reading some of her earlier books.

    • I do think it might well appeal to other people more than me – partly because I always get impatient with a lot of unnecessary detail and partly because my news-inspired lack of concentration might have been getting in the way. So I hope you enjoy it more when you get to it, and don’t let me put you off!

  6. I very nearly bought a copy of this today and despite everything you’ve said I expect I will still read it at some point. I am however now lowering my expectations, like you I don’t think every book needs to be a suspense fest but it seems odd to give all the main points away so early on. You also make an interesting point about the amount of detail swamping the story..

    • I do hope you will read it and hopefully enjoy it more than I did. I’m definitely being ultra picky at the moment because I’m finding it hard to concentrate on books, so I might have been too harsh. But I did find the idea of telling most of what was going to happen up front was odd…

  7. I’m working through this author’s work and have not come to this one yet. When I do, I will try to remember to skip the prologues and come back to them again at the end of the book, even though that is not what the author intended.

  8. Thinking about The Lodger, I see what you mean about SOME doubt, even a tiny bit, being important. The murderer HAS to be the lodger, but Mrs Bunting is so doubtful that at one point I almost wondered if the killer was Joe or her husband!

    • Yes, it wouldn’t have worked nearly so well if we’d known for sure. That’s a mistake I think contemporary authors often make though – they either have no suspense or they create false suspense by just not telling the reader things that the characters already know.

    • It was very odd – like reading a review filled with spoilers just before reading a book! I loved her last book, though – Exposure – and highly recommend it as one to start with if you ever get time to try her out. 🙂

    • Thank you! It seemed a very odd decision to me – I was almost tempted to suggest to people that they start from Chapter 3 and then read the prologue and first couple of chapters at the end. But maybe she had some reason for doing it that way that just went over my head! Hope you enjoy it when you get to it. 🙂

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