Set in 1792 Bristol, Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore starts with the murder of a woman. It then meanders along like a delightful historical fiction novel, following the daily lives of Lizzie – newly wed to property developer, John Diner Tredevant – and her family. Her mother, a prolific put dirt poor political pamphlet writer, her revolutionary but bumbling stepfather and their fiercely loyal servant and Lizzie’s former nanny all live in a couple of rooms in a boarding house.
As the French revolution turns into a violent bloodbath, Lizzie’s mother falls pregnant and the bottom falls out of the Bristol property market, Diner’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic and the novel shifts into gothic horror territory.
The transition is handled masterfully by Dunmore. This is a deeply political and feminist novel wrapped up in domestic noir trappings. Even strong female characters struggle to work around the bonds and limitations of a society which viewed women as the property of their husbands, and abandoned mothers (as Lizzie’s mother was) as undeserving of assistance. Women are subjected by male will and their own reproduction systems as the poor are subjected by the aristocracy.
This is, however, a novel that doesn’t beat you around the head with politics. You can read it as a political tract, or you can read it simply as the story of a young woman struggling to come to terms with the reality of marriage, separation from her childhood home and the tumultuous political and economic times. It’s equally brilliant on both levels.
The language is wonderful. It’s light and quietly humorous at the start, such as when her stepfather, Augustus, is trying to talk to Lizzie while walking up a narrow staircase:
‘Hold on to the rail,’ I said sharply, for he had wobbled in his discourse and I thought he might fall on top of me.
As the novel progresses the language and imagery becomes much darker as the lines between reality and unreality blur:
Muffled figures bend to their oars. They are rowing in another world and I know that if I cried out they would not turn.
Disclosure: I received a copy from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.