Reading a proof copy of this novel, all four sides of the cover are full of praise for Helen Dunmore. Picked out for particular note are her gift for human observation and her ability to portray the horrors of history.
Sadly I reached the end of this novel and shrugged my shoulders. True it was very well written, convincingly evoking the historical time and place of Bristol in the late 1700s, but the story lacked the depth and interest to really make me enthusiastic. The cover talks about “…a novel about terror and resistance set in a time of political chaos and personal tragedy.” My main problem is that this gives a false impression, because although Birdcage Walk is set at the time of the French Revolution, I didn’t feel the threat from the events in France really making a difference to everyday life in Bristol. Reading about events in the newspaper while sitting around the kitchen table just doesn’t make me feel the terror of what was happening there. Yes the impact means that John Diner Tredevant, one of the central characters, will likely lose his livelihood building houses for the wealthy, but because of the way that he is portrayed, we already feel little sympathy for him.
The plot centres on Lizzie Fawkes, wife of Diner Tredevant, who was raised in an independent way by her mother the writer of revolutionary treatises at a time when even the thought of women writing was unheard of. As a result Lizzie often comes into conflict with Diner’s more traditional thinking. She finds herself constantly caught between her family ties to her mother, who is pregnant to her second husband, and her traditional husband Diner, who frowns on her family and is locked in a constant battle to create a terrace of fashionable Georgian town houses overlooking the gorge through the middle of Bristol. He is wrapped in his own world and is insensitive to both Lizzie and her family.
As I say, it is a well written book, but in the end I found that the storyline was too bland to really set the story alight, which is a shame when Dunmore has created such an interesting location and background but not injected the spark needed to bring the plot to life.