Sister Luiza, otherwise Sarah Branton, an English nun in a Portuguese convent, goes to a lonely beach and swims out to sea to drown herself, believing herself pregnant. She is rescued by two men out fishing, one of whom is an Englishman, Richard Farley, who befriends her and takes her back to the villa where he is staying.
Both protagonists have damaged psyches. We learn that Richard's parents were killed by the Mau-Mau while he was a teenager, and that he suffers from nightmares from seeing their maimed bodies. He has failed with a restaurant in Portugal. Now he lives casually, caretaking friends' houses and doing odd jobs for them. Sarah's mother was Lady Jean Branton, who died eight years previously. Her father, Lt. Col. Branton, now lives in England and takes little interest in her. She has an aunt who has taken over the family house in Portugal.
Sarah is overwhelmed with gratitude for Richard and wants to give him something of value. She goes to reclaim a parcel which her mother deposited with some family retainers, telling them to give it to Sarah if she ever decided to leave the Order. But the parcel contains a secret which will put anyone who opens it in danger.
This was published in 1978 by Heinemann at £4.95. The US edition by Morrow came out in 1979 at $8.95. There was a serialisation in Woman's Own in October 1978. A Pan paperback appeared in 1980.
This is one of Canning's best books, full of good writing, interesting characters, and unpredictable outcomes.
Birdcage, a "dirty tricks" department of the British government, has figured in four previous Canning novels, Firecrest, The Rainbird Pattern, The Mask of Memory and The Doomday Carrier, and would return in three more, The Satan Sampler, Vanishing Point and Birds of a Feather.