Review published on March 15, 2017.
This is another great book by Helen Dunmore. Hopefully this won’t be her last, although she has announced that she has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Her diagnosis has made her think about the concept of legacy: ‘what is left behind by a life’? This is one of the themes of this book. The novel looks at ‘memory, historical record, what remains, what is saved and what is lost.’ It begins with a man walking in a cemetery with his dog and discovering an overgrown gravestone. The inscription on it is dedicated to Julia Elizabeth Fawkes and it says the stone was raised ‘In the presence of her many Admirers’. But who was Julia Fawkes and why was she admired? His research leads him to information about a small group of radicals in Bristol at the time of the French Revolution. The novel then concentrates on their story and, in particular, on Julia’s daughter, Lizzie. She has rebelled against her radical upbringing and married into seeming comfort and respectability. Her husband is a successful speculative builder until the turmoil in France effects businesses in England too.
The women in the book are all strong characters. Julia, the radical campaigner and writer; Lizzie her strong independent though somewhat naïve daughter, and their respective maidservants, Hannah and Philo. In her afterword, Helen Dunmore comments that women’s lives often remain unrecorded, although they also ‘shape the future’. It seems apt that I should be writing this review on International Women’s Day!
There is a lot of historical background to this novel, as there is in all Dunmore’s books, which is part of what makes them enjoyable. But what also makes them good to read is the well developed characters and storylines. The writing just flows along – I very nearly read this in one sitting. This would be an excellent book group choice as well as a good personal read.
Maddy Broome 5/5
Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
Hutchinson 9780091959401 hbk Mar 2017
Wellcome Book Prize 2017 shortlist: Mend the Living by Maylis de Kerangal