I picked up Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore because it is set in Bristol, and concerns the building of one of the crescents in the beautiful suburb of Clifton, close to where I live. It is also set in the period of the French revolution, a current interest.
We live in counter-revolutionary times, and Brexit is a counter revolutionary force just like the British armies that fought for the crowned heads of Europe in the Napoleonic Wars. Brexit is an attempt by the new establishment – the oligarchs and billionaires – to circumscribe the freedom of the people, and drive back the democratic gains achieved in the seventy years of quiet revolution since WW2.
The NHS, the environment, safety regulations, workers’s rights, and the political freedoms of minorities and foreigners are all threatened by this counter revolution disguised as a popular uprising. Do not think that the Tory government and its wealthy backers want anything more than the complete freedom to allow business to profit without moral constraint. They enclosed farmland, and protected landowners by raising the price of corn in those days. Now, free of the EU, they will cut wages and abolish safety regulations, cut business taxes, and starve the NHS.
But for Helen Dunmore, the political issues turn out to be quite tangential to the focus of her novel Birdcage Walk. It’s a historical novel set in revolutionary times, but the characters are only remotely involved in, and affected by, the politics of the time. The narrator’s mother is an associate of Thomas Paine, who wrote The Rights of Man. She has contacts in Paris, and hears of the events of the French revolution from eyewitnesses who contradict the mainstream news in The Times. But these are brief episodes in the novel, used to add colour, rather than its main focus.
The heroine marries a builder whose livelihood may be destroyed because the French revolution has damaged business confidence. He has every right, by his own terms, to be mad as a snake with his wife’s mother and her colleagues, who foment revolution with their pamphlets and meetings. Yet in the novel their paths never cross. There is no dramatic confrontation, not even any discussion or dialogue. This was a disappointment to me.
But I suppose I’m due to review the book that Helen Dunmore wrote, not the one I wished she had written. By her own measures Dunmore is quite successful. She does use the details of everyday life to evoke something of life at the time, and does present an interesting mystery in a clear historical context.
The conceit of the new crescent in Bristol, begun but never finished, clearly embodies the way politics can impact on ordinary people, on ordinary life. It also provides a realistic setting and context for the novel.
But the real story of Birdcage Walk is not political. It’s about a murder, hinted at in the first chapter, and slowly revealed to the narrator and reader as the story unfolds. So the reader knows part of the truth, and wants to learn more. And the reader watches the narrator, who is potentially the next victim, discover the whole truth.
The voice of the narrator is simple and clear. The writer uses subject verb object sentences without embellishment in a way that’s meant to represent the simple intelligence of the protagonist. It makes the book very easy to read, and allows the story to lead the reader on, but it’s not very challenging, and this voice limits the writer to a pretty straightforward narrative account.
It is so simple it could even be read by Brexiteers. Sorry that was a joke! Bad taste I know. Brexiteers aren’t really stupid. They are as intelligent as the rest of us. They just don’t read the right papers. Their opinions are formed by The Sun, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Times and The Telegraph. Newspapers that are part of the problem because they are owned by the tax evading billionaires who are behind Brexit, and want to get us out of the EU before new tax legislation, to be introduced in 2019, forces them to declare income that they have hidden in tax havens till now.
Oh, and Brexiteers watch BBC News, which failed in its duty to hold politicians to account during the referendum, and continues to do so, both with Brexit and with climate change.
No, what really holds the Brexiteers back now is pride, and blind optimism. Or blind faith in jolly Johnson, in the Maybot, in wily old disgraced former Foreign Secretary Mr Fox, in daft old Davies the sugar freak, and in the rest of the lying cheating Tory party, seeking the Best Brexit for Britain without the foggiest idea of what it means, or even whether it’ll mean there’s any food on the supermarket shelves – and not really caring.
Long live the revolution – just not their revolution.