Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

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Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Danger, excitement and sinister undercurrents run through this historical fiction based in 18th century Bristol. Not a cheery read, but so compelling, it's not one we want to put down either.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: March 2017
Publisher: Hutchinson
ISBN: 978-0091959401

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Bristol 1792: Lizzie married well. John Diner Tredevant is a property developer who has reached the zenith of his life's work: building a terrace of prestigious houses overlooking the Avon Gorge. In a time of turbulence as France reaches the dawn of revolution, Britain, including Diner, fears it may spread. This puts Lizzie in a difficult position since her mother and step-father both believe in propagating pamphlets and ideas of egalitarianism for and to all, including women. In other words, they think nothing of spreading ideas of the sort that fanned the French flames. However, that's not Lizzie's only problem… there is a darkness in her husband's past of which she's unaware.

The last book we saw from Helen Dunmore was the superlative 1960s cold war spy thriller Exposure. We now travel westerly from that Home Counties setting to Georgian Bristol for a tale of love, beliefs and menace.

Helen has some tricks up her sleeve and brings out one of her biggest guns straight away. We have no doubt about what Diner is like. Heck, in the introduction we witness him burying his first wife a little too surreptitiously for it to have been natural causes. Yet, of course, therein lays the cleverness. We know more than our narrator Lizzie so when they marry, we're shouting at the book in vain. Perhaps we're wrong and it'll end well? That, along with some superlative writing/plotting, is the shadow that keeps us going.

Lizzie is torn between the comparatively high rise houses of her husband and the dreams of her ailing mother. These two worlds are like chalk and cheese – money worshipping entrepreneur versus a life evangelically spreading equality. As the egalitarian touch paper is lit and the French Revolution begins, this gospel brings fear to the affluent as much as it brings hope to the poor, along with an uncertain future for all. Indeed, Helen provides us with a lot of well-added historical background that I hadn't realised regarding the commercial repercussions of rumour and the unknown. (There's a theme that's becoming familiar again.)

Lizzie spends time trying to be everything to everyone which becomes increasingly difficult when her step father devotes more thought to the cause than her mother.

Meanwhile back at the marriage, will Lizzie discover what happened to Mrs T #1? Has Diner changed after that violent blip in his past? I'll leave you to discover that, let's just say that Helen delivers a gripping roller coaster heightening both emotions and excitement in a way that inscribes it into our memory.

Helen definitely has a deft touch when it comes to history but the vividness of Lizzie and Diner's relationship is what stands out in glorious literary 3D. Speaking as someone raised in Bristol, I'll never be able to gaze down into the Gorge again without seeing that rowing boat. Bleak can be hauntingly beautiful and between these covers Helen demonstrates how.

(Thank you so much Hutchinson for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If you haven't read it already, do please treat yourself to Exposure. If you prefer something a bit more in the past, historically, we also recommend Counting the Stars, historical fiction featuring Ancient Roman Catullus. If you prefer something more modern, we also recommend Two Wrongs by Mel McGrath.

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Buy Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore at


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