This book was a bit of a strange read; for about 40% of the book I couldn’t really work out what the plot was… but once I had figured it out I really wanted to know how it ended. Despite my difficulties with the plot, Helen Dunmore’s writing was of a very high standard & kept me reading Birdcage Walk, even when I was doubting it.
I received an eARC of this book from Atlantic Monthly Press in return for an honest review.
This book contains death, emotional domestic abuse & slurs referring to Native Americans.
As I said in my introduction for this review, Birdcage Walk was a bit of an odd reading experience; for a long time I couldn’t work out what the point of the book was – there didn’t seem to be any clear direction for the plot so I was just a bit lost. So much of me wanted to put the book down for this reason, but I just couldn’t… Helen Dunmore’s writing was so good that I was addicted to reading a story that I couldn’t make sense of! As I said, weird.
When the plot finally got going & I finally understood what the book was about, I actually became desperate to find out how it would end – I was no longer contemplating putting it down, I had to finish it! Birdcage Walk is essentially a book about emotional/psychological abuse within a marriage; it’s the type of the abuse that emerges slowly over time & takes the victim by surprise when it finally becomes clear. Once I understood the nature of the story I found the start of the book made a lot more sense; it was setting a scene, rather than throwing the plot at the reader… but 40-50% of a book is a lot of page space to use to set the scene.
I think there’s a couple of reasons why I didn’t pick up on the fact that the book was about emotional/psychological abuse straight away; one is the fact that the book started in a time a long while after the actual story takes place – this part of the book was totally irrelevant & made literally no difference to the main story. If the book had started with the event that happened in June 1789 then I think I would have caught on to the abuse story-line a lot earlier.
Another reason why I don’t think I picked up on the main story-line straight away, is because there was a lot going on in this book! The book is set in England but there’s a lot of discussion about the politics in France (which I will say, was quite interesting) so it made me wonder if the characters were going to end up in France. There was also focus on Julia, the main character’s mother, whom is a writer; this (& the opening of the book) made me wonder if the book was about a female writer who used a man’s name to publish her work because of the time period. In the end, neither of these things were relevant & instead just added a lot of fat onto the bones of the story.
The actual abuse story-line was written incredibly well in the end though; the characters had a lot of depth to them & the way Diner (the husband) behaved became more & more uncomfortable to read as the book went on. I did actually find myself hoping that Lizzie (the wife) wouldn’t end up being hurt or killed by Diner, so I suppose Dunmore did a good job of evoking emotion in me. Diner ended up slowly displaying all of the tell-tail signs of being an abuser & it’s one of those reads where you think back & wonder how you missed all the signs. The afterword, in which Dunmore discusses Diner’s behaviour & why she wrote the book, also left me deep in thought & helped add to the emotion & dramatics of the story.
I came away from Birdcage Walk thinking that it wanted to send out quite a few messages; the one that seemed very bold, was the idea that girls should listen to their families about their love interests, unless you want to end up in an abusive relationship. At the end of the book Lizzie kept focusing on the fact that her family had warned her off of Diner & she seemed to blame herself for getting into an abusive relationship – if she had just listened to her mother none of this would have happened! Yuck. Clearly I don’t approve of this message. I’m not sure if this was deliberate but it definitely seemed like this was something Dunmore was trying to convey… I suppose it could also be seen as always putting your family first & taking their advice, though.
There were some good messages sent out from this read though; the women in the book are all quite strong, including Lizzie. As I’ve already mentioned, Lizzie’s mother Julia was a writer in the 1700s – not something that was very common. Julia was also very strong willed & brought her daughter up to listen to her own mind & to be her own person. Lizzie took after her mother a lot, something which is mentioned in the book, & is also something that husband Diner really does not approve of. Diner spends a lot of time trying to stop Lizzie from thinking like her family or considering their opinions to be equal to his, something which Lizzie refuses to give into.
Birdcage Walk also demonstrates that good, honest people are the ones who survive to the end, whilst the greedy cheats are the ones who always end up with nothing, & no one.
Would I recommend this book? I just don’t know. The writing was really good, & the second half of the book was written very well; but the first half was just a bit of a mess & this has seriously affected my judgement & rating of it. Maybe I didn’t enjoy it because I wasn’t able to pick up on the abuse story-line earlier; someone else who does pick up on it, or knows what to look out for, will probably enjoy Birdcage Walk more than I did.