Fiction Birdcage Walk
Helen Dunmore (Hutchinson, £16.99)
This BOOK’S arrival is perfectly timed: it’s set in an England that is anxiously watching political upheaval in France. it’s the terrifying bloodshed of the French Revolution—news of an efficient machine called a guillotine is making people stroke their necks nervously—rather than an election, but then, just as now, turbulent events are interpreted according to political viewpoint.
Lizzie Tredevant is caught between two ideologies. her mother and stepfather are famous radicals who desire the abolition of hereditary privilege and, although not exactly applauding the violence in France, they are certainly behind the uprising; her husband, Diner Tredevant, is a self-made builder whose grand plans for a crescent of houses overlooking the gorge in Bristol will be jeopardised by economic uncertainty.
Lizzie is no more interested in material goods than her parents, but she’s in thrall to Diner, who is unconfident and jealous and evasive about his first wife Lucie’s death. Their relationship is passionate, but not comfortably so and, as Louis XVI is executed and Diner’s debtors close in, it darkens frighteningly.
helen Dunmore has the elegant ability to conjure an entire character from a sentence—‘his fine fair skin where the flush came and went as if all his feelings were turned into colour’— and to build terror subtly: ‘he would not let his mind loose, for fear of where it might skedaddle without him.’ The description of a soft-grey silk dress gives you Lucie in one paragraph.
her brilliant last book, Exposure, the first of hers i’d read, set me chasing her backlist; this is not quite as good—it’s too long, gets bogged down in Lizzie’s grief for her mother and has a pointless first chapter—but the breathtakingly atmospheric writing absorbs. Kate Green