Helen Dunmore is unwell. Earlier this month the 64-year-old novelist referenced Philip Larkin’s Aubade and the “dread” of death in a newspaper article in which she made clear: “There is no vagueness about my mortality.”
In the afterword of Birdcage Walk, her 15th novel, Dunmore further reveals that she was unaware of having cancer while writing a book that focuses on the legacy of life. A novel written “under such a growing shadow cannot help being full of a sharper light”, she wrote.
The story opens in 1792 in Bristol — where Dunmore now lives — as the French Revolution is raging across the Channel. It was inspired by the author’s knowledge of a real Birdcage Walk, which cuts through a disused local graveyard where so many stories have “long dissolved into the earth”.
The lead character, Lizzie Fawkes, is the daughter of a libertarian mother who dares to pen her thoughts on hereditary privilege as her revolutionary circle await news from their Girondist friends in Paris.
Lizzie rebels by marrying the sexually beguiling Diner, a property developer not favoured by the anti-capitalists. He also happens to be a control freak and murderer, who in the opening chapter buries his first wife Lucie and becomes embroiled in a Georgian version of Grand Designs gone wrong while building a terrace in Clifton.
Mostly he stalks the novel like a cross between Emily Brönte’s Heathcliff and wife abuser Rob Titchener from The Archers, often leaving Lizzie scurrying back to her “Mammie” and eventually into the arms of a wanted liberal poet called Will Forrest. That’s when she’s not in bed with her dominating husband, where she spends an inordinate amount of time, resulting in sex scenes that read: “The room is cold but we burn.” Or: “We fold into each other.” Dunmore is nothing if not a champion of the bald seven-word sentence.
Although best known for her 2001 novel The Siege, about the siege of Leningrad, and a canon of other historical novels, I’d never read Dunmore until now. This surprised my sister, who has been a huge fan for years, although even she got stuck on page 40 of this new book. It is not without interest but it neither made me cry nor laugh, nor race to the final chapter.
Dunmore’s real gift is to shine a light on unsung historical stories — from D H Lawrence’s expulsion from Cornwall in her first 1993 novel, Zennor in Darkness, to the real-life 18th-century Bristol property crash and pamphleteers of political change in Birdcage Walk.
Yet what prevailed most was the lingering question: what is left behind after death? The “sharper light” in this novel reminds us that we all have something to pass down to the next generation. The extraordinary love of a mother for her daughter. The idiosyncratic arch of an eyebrow. An unlearned, natural talent.
As Dunmore herself recently wrote: “We die, but do not quite die out.”
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