Monday, January 15, 2018

Birdcage Walk

Title:  Birdcage Walk
Author:  Helen Dunmore
Publication Information:  Atlantic Monthly Press. 2017. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0802127142 / 978-0802127143

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "If my friends hadn't decided that I should have a dog I would never have opened the gate and gone into the graveyard."

Favorite Quote:  "I saw clearly now that it was  not so easy to step out of the life which held us. No matter how far we went, we would take with us not only our selves but all the ghosts of our lives."

British history found itself in tumultuous times in the 1790s. The economy, particularly the building industry was booming. Builders overextended themselves, hoping for big profits from the sale of luxury homes in Bristol. The coming of war and the political divisions that led to that caused the booming industry to collapse and left many a builder in ruins.

This is the historical setting of Birdcage Walk. The main characters portray a piece of this historical puzzle. Lizzie Fawkes is a married woman who struggles against the confines of that marriage. Her parents, particularly her mother, are supporters of the French revolution and considered radicals. Her husband John Diner Tredevant is an up and coming builder who has invested everything he is into a luxury housing project. The revolution and war threaten everything he seeks to achieve.  Lizzie finds herself between the two viewpoints and two loyalties.

In addition to the historical perspective, the book has an even darker, more personal side. John Diner Tredevant wants control, over his business, his home, and particularly his wife. He sees it as her duty to obey. This control gradually takes on a darker and darker tone, isolating Lizzie. In that respect, this story could be set anywhere and in virtually any context.

The title Birdcage Walk refers to both the historical and personal aspects of this story.  Figuratively, the title conjures up images of Lizzie Fawkes caught in a controlling, abusive marriage; she is indeed a bird in a cage. Literally, Birdcage Walk is a graveyard of the St Andrews church in Clifton village in Bristol, England. The graveyard features ornate tombstones and a shaded tree-tunnel. To this day, it is listed as a tourist attraction to be visited in Clifton.

The historical background in this case provides some of the motivation for John Tredevant's actions. Otherwise, this is very much the story of a marriage. The events of the Revolution are removed from their impact on Lizzie. She is torn between the opposing views of her mother and her husband. Her mother's idealism and her husband's business mindedness represent a reaction to the history; Lizzie's actions are more a reaction to her personal situation than the history. Thus, the book does focus more on the domestic and marital concerns that Lizzie navigates on a day to day basis. The book description envisions "an unsettling and brilliantly tense drama of public and private violence, resistance and terror." The details are not quite that memorable or that dramatic.

The book begins with a the discovery of a grave and a curiosity as to its history. The book never does wind its way back to the discoverer, but no matter. In the afterword, the author explains that the book is in part about that which we leave behind. "I wanted to write about people whose voices have not echoed through time and whose struggles and passions have been hidden from history." This message takes on an added significance because this book is now her last published work. Ms. Dunmore sadly passed away in June, 2017, at the age of sixty four. The legacy of her work lives on.

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