Birdcage Walk

Written by Helen Dunmore
Review by Douglas Kemp

Bristol in the latter decade of the 18th century. Elizabeth (or Lizzie as she is mostly known), narrates the story in the first person, and is a young bride, newly married to the speculative builder John Tredevant, generally known for some reason as Diner. He is constructing an ambitious terrace of large houses in Clifton, with spectacular and expensive views over the Avon. Lizzie’s mother is the political writer Julia Fawkes, who falls pregnant at the age of forty to her second husband, Augustus Gleeson.

When the political ferment with the French Revolution across the Channel starts to affect the economic climate in England, builders of expensive houses like Elizabeth’s husband suffer from the downturn. Tredevant has a secret about his first, deceased wife, Lucie, which the reader knows about from the very opening of the novel, but Elizabeth only uncovers slowly throughout the story. Elizabeth is a challenging (for her family) and quite complex individual for a woman of her time: headstrong and rather determined to do what she wants to do.

Helen Dunmore invariably writes accomplished, poetic fiction, and this is an engaging and absorbing read, but I was not quite so captured by this book as by her more recent publications—though this may be down to very high expectations of her ability to deliver superb writing. The novel has an underlying theme of mortality with the remnants of a life that is left behind us, understandable as we learn from the media that the author is suffering from a serious illness.