Category Archives: Book

Birdcage Walk, Dunmore’s Swan Song

Helen Dunmore lost her fight with cancer. Birdcage Walk was the last book she published. (Updated June 5, 2017)

The following was published in March 2017 and I’m reprinting here.

Helen Dunmore is big news in the publishing world. Birdcage Walk is already the book at bedtime on Radio4, she has had a programme on the BBC to talk about her poetry and has received national coverage. That’s some doing, but then Dunmore is a multi-award-winning author whose book A Spell of Winter was the first Orange Prize winner. Her previous book Exposure was utterly compelling from start to finish and Birdcage Walk is similar. In She has also just announced she “was diagnosed with a cancer that has a very poor prognosis.”

The title of the book is a graveyard, the prelude talks of death, the prologue includes a death, the historical parallel is the French Revolution with its guillotine-ahoy-solution to regime change, and the setting is Bristol but at a time when Clifton was not the provider of upper-middle-class comfort it is now, but a purveyor of destruction for those trying to build there.

Birdcage Walk is the first Bristol novel by prolific award-winning writer and long-time Bristol resident, Helen Dunmore, and it is the book that she was working on while being quite ill (although unawares).

The novel itself is eminently readable; I finished it in one night. Dunmore has cleverly taken some of the most important but seldom-talked-about aspects of Bristol and turned them into a story. (The half-built Georgian terraces in Clifton are also mentioned in the Devil’s Mask.)

[[PHOTO CREDIT: A reading from the Devil’s Mask in front of the Royal York Crescent terraces, which in the story are half-built.]]

There is a lot there to combine, however, and coming out at the end of it all, there is a confusing sense of not knowing the unifying theme behind the story. What does the hero go through to emerge out the other end and how does she need to change in order to escape her fate? This is no Fair Fight by Anna Freeman, which is by far the best historical account of Bristol I have read so far and with incredibly well-written characters.

The point of the Birdcage Walk seems to reside in the phrase “Her Words Remain Our Inheritance” and the constant presence of death. Nothing else really unites the book apart from its author’s sense of impending doom.

The story is set in 1792 but begins with a modern-day ‘prelude’, which introduces an unrelated grieving character who stumbles upon the grave of Julia Fawkes, next to Birdcage Walk, and finds out little about her.

This prelude is meant to introduce the reader to Fawkes as someone whose (important?) work has been erased, but it’s a bizarre narrative ploy. It’s the equivalent of an unnecessary dialogue introduced for the sole purpose of relaying some information to the reader. It’s ‘telling’ and not ‘showing’. Dunmore writes of Fawkes – the character/actual person – that “She writes with the confidence of one who knows that an eager readership is waiting for her. Her voice is original, persuasive and disturbing, for she is writing about equality, the rights of women and the poor, and about the damage to society caused by hereditary privilege.” This we are meant to take on faith because as Dunmore writes, “not one word of Julia’s writing survives.”

There is one writer, however, whose writing has survived and who spawned the feminist movement in Britain; Mary Wollstonecraft, whose A Vindication of the Rights of Women was published in 1792 – the same year the novel is set and with Wollstonecraft being about the same age as Fawkes is depicted in the novel. Wollstonecraft who also wrote about the French Revolution, is the mother of Mary Shelley who has quite a link to Bristol. Shelley was married to poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who along with Coleridge and Wordsworth, would often meet in Bristol. She also wrote Frankenstein, which is set to have been inspired by what Shelley saw of the slave trade when she summered in Clifton in 1815. So it’s great that Dunmore wants to highlight people whose voice didn’t make it through the centuries but similar thoughts did make it to present time. Would Fawkes’ work be any different to Wollstonecraft’s in its essence?

Birdcage Walk is set in 1792 against the backdrop of Europe’s political turmoil and violence. There is a property boom in Clifton, which is about to come crashing down with the declaration of war in 1793 but while we follow our protagonist Lizzie, the doom is still impending. The freedoms that the French Revolution promises are slowly revealed over the course of the novel to come with death and terror. I’m not sure if there are meant to be parallels between the entitled who are toppled in the French Revolution and the austerity imposed around the world by the elite 1% but they aren’t hard to spot. But again, there is no real message that comes through about revolution and uprisings as a lesson for our protagonist.

There are feminist glimpses in the story – a bit overt – such as the inability of women to own property (until quite a lot later) and of everything belonging to their husbands. Lizzie’s ever decreasing sphere of freedom in a relationship that slowly turns potentially abusive is another exploration of the lack of rights of women.

Everything slowly seems to progress towards death and terror until the very end.

In 1792, there was no Clifton Suspension Bridge yet so Clifton houses may have overlooked Leigh Woods but to get there you had to cross by boat. Who was the ferryman in the story? Diner, the main character.

It’s a compelling premise – what happens after things come crashing down? I could not get into the spirit of what Dunmore suggests the book is about; writing “about people whose voices have not echoed through time and whose struggles and passions have been hidden from history.”

I also couldn’t quite understand how the main character, Lizzie, fit into that category since she didn’t really write anything.

I loved the Bristol mentions in the book and it was very local to me. My husband used to live on the Royal York Crescent and the dressmaker’s next to the surgery is a place I walk by frequently.

It’s an entertaining read and its timeline and plot make for compelling reading but its characters lack the depth that would have really made this novel stand out.

Birdcage Walk was published on 2 March, 2017. It’s currently being broadcast on Radio4.

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Guillermo Del Toro, Cancelled

For those who booked a ticket to see Guillermo del Toro at 7pm on Friday 8 October at the Cheltenham Literature Festival you are about to be disappointed.

Guillermo del Toro is unable to attend as he has cancelled his planned trip to the UK and is no longer intending to visit Europe over the next few weeks.

If you have a ticket then please contact the Box Office for a refund or exchange your session for a different one. There are many to choose from.

You can buy tickets and browse through all the sessions at http://cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature/.

Cheltenham Literature Festival: Derren Brown

I recently wrote about some star appearances at the Cheltenham Literature festival and now there are three more additions. Derren Brown, Simon Pegg and Maureen Lipman have all confirmed their appearances and their tickets are sure to sell out very quickly.

Derren Brown, 9 October, 8.30-9.30pm.
The conjuror and illusionist extraordinaire presents his brilliant and hilarious Confessions of a Conjuror. Find out how his weird and wonderful mind works as he discusses his obsession with magic and the amazing journey that is his life so far.
Demand is meant to be high- Tickets are £13.

Simon Pegg, 17 October, 7.45-8.45pm

Actor Simon Pegg joins the Festival to discuss his brand-new autobiography, Nerd Do Well, a joyous tale of a home-grown superstar (from Gloucestershire) and a local boy made good.
Tickets are £17

Maureen Lipman, 17 October, 4-5pm
Actress, author and Festival favourite Maureen Lipman returns to Cheltenham to present a one-woman show featuring monologues and sharply-observed episodes from I Must Collect Myself, her new book.
Tickets are £7.

PS I have already booked tickets for Derren Brown so if you’re going I’ll see you there.

It’s Monday, What Are You Reading?

“It’s Monday! What are you reading?” is a weekly event hosted by Sheila to share with others what you’ve read the past week and planning to read next.

I saw this on Leeswamme’s Blog and since I find myself spending more time indoors lately I thought I would finally take part.

Finished

This week I finished two books:

  • Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett, the 37th Discworld novel which provides a great read about some new and old characters in Ankh Morpork – see review on Suite101
  • The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes which was one more brilliant story by a woman who writes a lot more than just chick lit although that is how she is mainly categorised.

Started

  • The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver. A book by the author of We Need To Talk About Kevin. I have started it many times and although the idea that the main love interest speaks with a cockney accent keeps putting me off, I hope to finally finish it.

Planned

  • Angels by Marian Keyes
  • The Magus by John Fowles
  • Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates

Other News

  • I like the idea of the Princess Bride readalong, which I read about on Leeswammes’ blog, and will be doing that in October. It is hosted by Chris from Book-a-Rama and begins on October 2

Review: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Unseen Academicals is the 37th Discworld Novel by Terry Pratchett and is apparently about football although as the blurb states “the important thing about football – is that it is not just about football” (Pratchett 2009). Indeed, this book is not just about the beautiful game but instead takes its time to introduce the new characters of Mr Nutt, who even Mr Nutt does not know about, Glenda Sugarbean the amazing cook and head of the Night Kitchen at the Unseen University, a ‘likely’ lad who has a skill with a tin can and a model who shines but is not so bright.

Read more at Suite101: Book Review – Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Cheltenham Literature Festival, Meeting The Stars

The annual Cheltenham Literature Festival is bringing the stars to this South West town for the 61st time in 2010. Between 8 and 17 October, the likes of Michael Parkinson, Antonio Carluccio and Alexei Sayle will be wandering the streets and settling for an hour or so to talk about their latest work. The theme this year is Dreams and Nightmares and my suitably favourite event is Guillermo Del Toro discussing his new novel The Fall on Friday October 8. Tickets are £7 and the session is on between 7 and 8pm.

Some other eagerly anticipated sessions include Mark Kermode, Melvyn Bragg, James Ellroy, Hanif Kureishi, Alexander McCall Smith, Sue Townsend, Michael Caine and Jo Brand.

You can buy tickets and browse through all the sessions at http://cheltenhamfestivals.com/literature/.

Green Poems for a Blue Planet, Book Launch

Bristol-based screenwriter Martin Kiszko and four-time Oscar winner Nick Park are launching their new book Green Poems for a Blue Planet next month. On August 11 at 6pm they will be at Rise Records Music Store signing new copies.

The book was illustrated by Park who is better known for his success with the Wallace & Gromit creations and together with Kiszko they have put together a collection of poetry about environmental issues.

You can attend by emailing Angela Sansom at Redcliffe Press, angelasansom@hotmail.com. See more details on the website www.greenpoemsforablueplanet.com

Thanks to South West Screen for the information on the Redcliffe Press contact.