The Birdcage Library

Written by Freya Berry
Review by Edward James

If you like Gothic novels, this is a feast.  There are no paranormal elements (except a brief hint in the epilogue), but we have a crumbling Scottish castle with a mad owner and his equally homicidal assistant, strange deaths, false identities, lost treasure and echoes of a 50-year-old mystery involving the 19th-century trade in exotic animals.

The action begins in 1932, when unemployed botanist, Emmy, is invited to the castle to catalogue the owner’s huge collection of stuffed animals.  It is no job for a botanist, but she needs the work, and he has ulterior motives.  Much of the story is, however, taken from a 50-year-old diary that Emmy discovers in the castle, written by Hester, who grew up in the castle and is supposedly buried there.  Most of the entries in the diary relate to New York in the 1880s and concern the craze for exotic pets among the super-rich.  This is therefore very much a dual-period novel, switching to and fro between the two eras.

The plot is wildly complicated and completely improbable, but the novel is wonderfully atmospheric, and the two main characters have interesting and complex personalities, born of their tortuous childhoods.  The diary sets Emmy a series of cryptic clues to find the treasure which she believes to be a diamond, although eventually she finds something far more precious.