Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore was first published in 2017. It says on the cover ‘The finest novel Dunmore has written.’ Sadly it was also the last one she wrote as she discovered as she was editing the book that she was seriously ill.

The setting is Bristol around the time of the French Revolution. Lizzie Fawkes is a young married woman, her husband John Diner Tredevant is a property developer, he had been married before, to a French woman who had died while visiting France. Lizzie’s mother Julia hadn’t ever really warmed to her son-in-law, but Lizzie had never much liked her step-father Augustus, and she likes him even less when she discovers that her mother is pregnant, at her age it seems far too dangerous.

Julia is well known in Radical circles as she’s a writer of speeches and pamphlets, it’s a dangerous occupation though as the British government is naturally worried about revolutionary acts spreading from France.

There had been a housing boom in Bristol, until the trouble in France makes everybody jittery, they know that war with France is likely, and nobody is interested in buying new houses. Lizzie’s husband is going to be in deep financial trouble, but he’s already causing trouble for Lizzie as he becomes more and more controlling.

This was a great read.

The Guardian review said: ‘A blend of beauty and horror evoked with such breathtaking poetry that it haunts me still.’

A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel

 Lady Anna cover

I hadn’t even heard of A Place of Greater Safety by Hilary Mantel when I spotted it in a second-hand bookshop in Innerleithen. I quite fancied the subject matter though, the setting is the French Revolution and it’s a chunkster at 872 pages. I was disappointed for the first 100 pages or so and I did think that Mantel had definitely improved in her historical fiction with Wolf Hall, but this one eventually got going.

This book has an eight page cast of characters at the beginning, which is just as well as it certainly helps the reader to keep things straight. I think we all have a fair idea of what went on in revolutionary France, but this book begins in the 1760s with the early life of the main participants in the grab for power in the 1780s.

Mantel says in her Author’s Note that where possible she used a lot of the characters’ actual words, whether from their written speeches or preserved writing and has woven it into her dialogue.

She also says: I have tried to write a novel that gives the reader scope to change opinions, change sympathies: a book that one can think and live inside. The reader may ask how to tell fact from fiction. A rough guide:anything that seems particularly unlikely is probably true.

I ‘did’ the French Revolution at school but reading this book made it all much clearer to me. I don’t think that my school books mentioned anything about the involvement of the British government who were working to destabilise France as a way of getting rid of King Louis and helped to finance the revolution – but now that I think about it – of course they would have!

This was a great read.

The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor

I’ve recently enjoyed reading some of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s travel books and I have a habit of trying to read everything by an author once I’ve ‘found’ them, so when I saw this book in a shop in Great Malvern I had to buy it, even although it’s a novel, his only one actually.

It was originally published in 1953 and is set in the Caribbean, a place I would never want to visit, being a cold country person. I usually avoid ‘hot climate’ books when I can, I know – daft but true!

Anyway, I did enjoy the book but not nearly as much as Fermor’s A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. There is the same sparkling descriptive prose of course and if you want to ‘experience’ a volcanic eruption in safety then you couldn’t do better than to read this book.

To begin with I found myself thinking that it seemed to be exactly like one of his travel books but when Fermor befriends Mademoiselle Berthe de Renne a very elderly artist who is living in Mitylene in Greece, he becomes entranced by her stories of life on the Caribbean island of Saint-Jacques before the Great War. Berthe is looking back to her youth but this book is more than descriptive decadence. If you want to go deeper I suppose it’s about disappearing worlds and loss.

It has plenty of interesting ‘by the byes’ such as the fact that the French Revolution shenanigans extended to the French colonies, something I hadn’t realised before but I suppose it is obvious they would. The really heartening thing though is that when a guillotine was erected in Saint-Jacques and the first Royalist head hit the basket, the negroes who witnessed it were horrified and broke through a cordon of guards to tear the guillotine to bits. The same thing apparently happened in Haiti, thus proving that the negroes were more civilised than the French if you ask me. I believe that yesterday (16th October) it was the 220th anniversary of Marie Antoinette being guillotined and there was an auction of some of her possessions, if you’re interested have a look here.