Helen Dunmore: Background information when reading Birdcage Walk

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Birdcage Walk

by Helen Dunmore

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore X
Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore
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  • First Published:
    Aug 2017, 416 pages

    Oct 2018, 416 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite
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About this Book

Helen Dunmore

This article relates to Birdcage Walk

Print Review

Helen Dunmore Helen Dunmore was born in Yorkshire, England in 1952. In a career spanning three decades she published fifteen novels, three short story collections, prize-winning children's fiction and twelve collections of poetry. Her final novel, Birdcage Walk, was published in 2017, as was her last poetry collection, Inside the Wave. Dunmore died on June 5, 2017, aged 64.

Of her many novels, most are works of historical fiction, ranging in time and setting from ancient Rome in Counting the Stars (2008) to the Cold War world of espionage in Exposure (2016). Her debut, Zennor in Darkness (1993) was set in World War I. Twentieth century conflicts, and their effects on individuals and families are subjects she returned to frequently. Many of her books also center on themes of secrecy and fragmented families, of lost children or of lost innocence; this last a key focus of A Spell of Winter which won the Orange Prize for fiction in 1996.

Dunmore had become particularly known in recent years for her portrayal of stories of ordinary men and women during the World Wars. The Siege (2001) is set in Leningrad before and during the Russian city was besieged by German forces during World War II. It tells the intimate story of one family's experience of an event that killed six hundred thousand people. Described by the New York Times book review as "elegantly, starkly beautiful," the book was shortlisted for both the Orange and Whitbread prizes. The Betrayal (2010) returned to the characters in The Siege, ten years on, in 1952. In The Greatcoat (2013), Dunmore created a compelling post World War II ghost story where a woman living in a remote Yorkshire village finds a greatcoat belonging to an RAF pilot and then begins an illicit affair with the coat's owner who appears at her window one night. And in The Lie (2014), Daniel, a soldier, returns from World War I, as 'one of the lucky ones' - a survivor – but what Dunmore calls "the long shadows of war" beset him as he tries to establish a life and future in Cornwall.

In 2010, writing in The Guardian, Sarah Crown said of Dunmore's novels: "Wars, repressive regimes and a trail of dead infants: you'd be forgiven for thinking that Dunmore doesn't offer much in the way of fun and games. But a large part of her brilliance as a writer is in the way she offsets harrowing issues with a deep, sensual attention to the material world."

This is equally true of her last novel, Birdcage Walk, which, while it takes place away from the turmoil of the Reign of Terror in France, still offsets her dark themes with beautiful multi-sensory writing.

For those who came to know Helen Dunmore through her novels, it may be a surprise to find that she was, as described in her obituary in The Guardian "first and last a poet." Her first poetry collection was published when she was thirty and her poem "The Malarkey," won the 2007 National Poetry Competition in Britain. She submitted it anonymously, long after her career was established and flourishing.

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Article by Kate Braithwaite

This "beyond the book article" relates to Birdcage Walk. It originally ran in August 2017 and has been updated for the October 2018 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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