"Birdcage Walk" Kate Riordan
I'm so pleased to have discovered Kate Riordan. There's nothing better than finding a new author and then realising they have a back catalogue of titles to indulge in! If you haven't read one of her books yet, I highly recommend them. Riordan is an exquisite, intelligent and beautiful writer who can conjure up historical settings effortlessly and create characters with which you immediately engage become embroiled in their journey.
So what's "Birdcage Walk" about?
A London Murder Mystery Based on a True Historical Crime
George Woolfe is a young working class East London printmaker in the early 1900’s. Frustrated by the constraints of his class and station, he sees an opportunity to escape when he by chance meets Charles Booth, author of one of the most comprehensive social surveys of London ever undertaken. But this auspicious encounter has tragic consequences for George who, within six months, is charged with the murder of a young woman. But did he do it?
Set at the dawning of a new century, when the rigid class and gender boundaries of the Victorian age were soon to shift and realign, Birdcage Walk is a historical novel that vividly brings to life a real-life Edwardian murder and the possible miscarriage of justice that followed it.
First and foremost I must say how vividly Riordan is able to bring Edwardian London to life. I slipped into the era easily, completely transported there without even having to think about it, enjoying the attention to detail and her evocative descriptions, for example:
"Only in the darkest corners of the tenement street, where the sun never quite penetrated, did the silt of muck, canal slop and coal rake shine wetly between the uneven cobbles. Elsewhere all was as dry as dust, baked by a late summer sun that shone relentlessly.."
We meet George who lives with his father, a birdcage maker. I loved the description of the birdcages - I felt I could almost touch them from the beautiful images Riordan created. The sense of passion and love the owner felt for them immediately made them feel special and as significant as the characters in the book. Riordan conjures up the artistic skill and patience that creates something so arresting with phrases like "....gently as though it were wrought from glass, he lifted down the cage. Though unpainted, it was delicately crafted, with fine tendrils of metal wound into the likeness of roses at its tapering top and ivy leaves threaded around the base......he could manipulate and shape the bands of metal into miniature aviaries as if he was twisting ribbons... though the finished cages were as sturdy a they appeared delicate..." I was left hankering after one for myself!
This particular Birdcage was "the grandest cage he had ever made" which subtly implies the significance that it will have in the novel - not only is it special to George's father, it also becomes more symbolic. It is the sale of this birdcage to a wealthy gentleman which changes the course of George's life forever. George also uses it as a metaphor for marriage and to explain how he feels about the character of Charlotte. In fact, the more I reflect upon it, the more I realise just how significant the birdcage imagery (and then implicitly the connotations of birds, flight and freedom) is to many aspects of the novel's plot and characters.
George is an interesting character. I felt sympathy towards him. He is an honest, hardworking young man who hankers after a better life - it is not necessarily the wealth of Clemmie's family (the daughter for whom the gentleman bought the cage) that he envies but more the intellectual potential and promise that her life holds; the opportunities he cannot access. His interest and budding friendship with Clemmie is genuine and innocent. It is his integrity that actually becomes his downfall.
His sense of class and place is palpable and reminds us firmly of the era in which the story takes place and therefore the consequences this will have on the future for George when his character is called into question. I loved the Booth's maid whose distain for having to serve George - someone of her own class- is captured through the following description: "looking openly disgusted the maid withdrew and soon returned with a white enamelled plate and a large mug of stewed tea". She will put him firmly in his place even if the family won't. Similarly George's painful awareness of his position is agonisingly captured through the "strain to behave in the correct way, to not betray himself".
Similarly, Charlotte, George's best friend, and Cissy, his sister, are well drawn characters. Charlotte's vivaciousness compliments George's cautiousness and her jealousy is deftly portrayed. I love the way Riordan is able (in all her novels) to convey so much through such understated phrases, for example Charlotte's reaction to George's fondness for Clemmie is actually more significant as it unsettles all she thought she was sure of -"as if her knack of carelessness had been stolen when her back was turned". I guess this also shows how "dangerous" perhaps George's attempts to transcend class barriers are and the risks of imagining himself to be worthy of a place in Clemmie's parlour.
I also related to Cissy who at every turn just tries to do what she thinks is for the best even when unwittingly affecting the dramatic turn of events.
Riordan's novel is captivating and atmospheric. Her moments of thoughtful observation are as compelling as the events in the story itself. In his short life, George undergoes a huge journey of self discovery through his interaction with Charlotte. His revaluation of his father was particularly moving as he realised "the gentleness George had always loved and prized had warped into passivity; the quietness that once seemed like self assurance, now seemed to reveal itself as weakness."
I really do love Riordan's writing. It is atmospheric and haunting. Her use of George's letters to break up the chapters added real intrigue and gave the story some additional suspense. The historic detail is so well intwined that the book reads with an assured authenticity. The dialogue is convincing and the charters are all very three dimensional and well drawn. Each of them leaves a mark on the reader.
What is more captivating is that this is actually based on a true story. For me, this made the ending so much more poignant and powerful. I was gripped and I could have highlighted pages and pages of exquisite description and imagery that appealed to me.
With only one more of her books to go on my To Be Read pile, I am almost delaying reading it. A sense that I will be left rather bereft once I have finished it already puts me of starting it!!
If you like Katherine Webb, Kate Morton, Sarah Waters, Emily Organ, Kate Mosse or Kate Summerscale, then you should definitely give this book a go. And as it was published in 2012, it is available on Amazon for an exceptionally reasonable price!
If you'd like to read more of my recommendations and reviews then you can follow me on Twitter @katherinesunde3