Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore begins and ends with short chapters set in the present. The story proper commences in 1789 with a man burying a woman’s body in an isolated glade in the fading darkness before sunrise. Three years on Lizzie Fawkes begins her story – she is newly married to widower, John Diner Tredevant, an entrepreneurial architect and builder with a vision of building a terrace of perfectly proportioned houses at Clifton on the edge of the Avon Gorge. Lizzie, the daughter of a Radical writer Julia Fawkes, has been raised in egalitarian circles yet the independent spirit she has inherited is at odds with Diner’s demand for a traditional wife who puts him first in all things. Diner is mercurial and brooding, and although he loves Lizzie, there is an ever present undercurrent of violence in him, even in their most intimate moments. Lizzie is bound to him by both love and an intense physical attraction. There are moments of happiness yet she tiptoes around him, humouring him when he is sullen and brooding. In the background, revolution is underway in France. Initially welcomed by the English Radicals, some, such as Julia Fawkes, are increasingly disturbed by the bloodshed and the excesses of the mob. The events in France reverberate in England, with fear of both impending revolution and possibly war spurring an unwillingness to invest that destroys the building boom. Diner’s terrace, in which he has invested both his fortune and his greatest dreams, is uncompleted and his debts are unpaid. As Lizzie’s marriage becomes more oppressive with the crumbling of Diner’s fortunes, Julia dies in childbirth leaving Lizzie without the woman whose emotional support has been the mainstay of her life. And always, at the back of the reader’s mind, is the initial image of the burial in the glade – the suspicion of the man’s identity and his motivations.
Each character, even the servants, is well rounded. Julia and Diner are particularly vivid and complex. As the bulk of the novel is Lizzie’s first person narrative, our impressions come from her observations and interactions. Dunmore’s prose is spare yet lyrical. She gives the sense of the late 18th century without using antiquated term or laboured expression. For narrative purposes the initial ‘Prelude’ set in the present could be left out, however, it is tied to Dunmore’s theme of lives that leave no trace despite their importance to the lives around them, the way ‘the individual vanishes from the historical record’. She ends her ‘Afterword’ with a description of Birdcage Walk which bring the novel full circle.