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.
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.