Lizzie’s husband, John Diner Tredevant, an imposing, possessive and ambitious man, is building a magnificent terrace of mansions on the edge of a cliff. He plans to make a fortune. He’s that sexiest of suitors, a widower, his first wife, a Frenchwoman named Lucie, having died mysteriously on a trip to her fractious home country. He doesn’t want children because he’d rather not share Lizzie just yet. They have great sex; she uses the sponge.
Shades of Maxim de Winter, Mr. Rochester, even the Duke of Ferrara (Diner says of his first wife, “Lucie was always smiling”) cling to Diner Tredevant. Lizzie’s assumption that her husband still loves his dead wife doesn’t waver. He’s difficult and duplicitous, a man only his creator could love. Or Lizzie Fawkes, who admits, “I have loved, with every fiber of my being, a man who lied to me from the instant that we met.”
The marriage is tense, alternating between torrid sex and conflicts about politics, kitchen table conversations when Diner turns from indulgent to threatening and back again. Lizzie shares her family’s enthusiasm for the French Revolution, but her husband has an investor’s natural fear of economic upheaval and reacts to the news from France as if it were coming straight from his mother-in-law’s pen. When Lizzie defends Julia’s position, he loses his temper.
“ ‘And now I read that women are demanding pikes and pistols, in order to defend Paris. What does your mother think of that?’
“ ‘She does not want bloodshed.’
“ ‘Yet she writes on the abolition of privilege. Does she imagine that it will abolish itself without bloodshed? Be honest, Lizzie.’ ”
As Paris swims in blood and Diner’s fortunes dwindle, he invites Lizzie to descend into the vault underneath the house he has built for them, the only one of his doomed palatial terraces that is habitable. He says he wants to show her something. Their marriage has turned decidedly dark, and Lizzie has discovered details of her husband’s past that make her afraid to be alone with him in a place she can’t easily escape. The scene is classic, even Greek; she must go into the underworld and bring something out. But it’s also as Gothic as “The Castle of Otranto.” In the cellar, Diner leads her to a formidable wall:
“He ran his hand over the bricks as a man might run his hand over the flank of a fine horse.
“ ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘This will stand in 200 years.’ He leaned forward, and to my astonishment he laid his cheek against the wall and closed his eyes. ‘I built this,’ he said.”
It’s a touching assertion, wistful and hopeless. Lizzie resolves to cling to him as he drops down the chute to oblivion. She’s signed on for the full catastrophe, the calling in of loans he can’t pay, the angry unpaid workers beating on the door at dawn, the disappearance of the furniture, the penny-pinching at the market, mutton stew for dinner again, then nothing but porridge, the midnight flight from creditors and the law.
Lizzie Fawkes is a naïve young woman, but she’s not a naïve narrator. There’s no device or subtext to her story. “Birdcage Walk” is not a novel in the form of a diary, a memoir, a letter or an internal monologue; Lizzie’s voice comes out of the air. Occasionally, and for no apparent reason, she slips into the present tense.
In this and other ways, “Birdcage Walk” defies and includes a number of genres; it steadfastly refuses to be one thing. And why should it? Why narrow the scope of what a novel can do? The plot meanders, surprises. The characters are thoughtful, complex and irritating; sometimes they just talk about ideas.
Helen Dunmore, the author of 15 novels and 11 collections of poetry, died in June of cancer. Increasingly ill as she worked on this book, she observes in its afterword that “under such a growing shadow,” the novel “cannot help being full of a sharper light, rather as a landscape becomes brilliantly distinct in the last sunlight before a storm.” That sharp light illuminates the canvas of “Birdcage Walk” and gives it a charged radiance. It has a tenuous, momentary feel, as if one were reading a Turner painting. The storm will blot it out.
Lizzie feels it too. When her husband takes her to walk on the nearby Downs at night, she can’t see to find her way. “ ‘Let your eyes grow used to the dark,’ said Diner. The dark swelled before me, enormous, breathing from every shadow.… I knew that I was afraid. I did not want to grow used to the dark.”