I have to say I found the first few pages of this novel a little off putting; the story is set in Oxford, populated by academics, a child and a nanny relationship, it made me worry about having seen it all before – my bad! I didn’t so much realise I was wrong as get sucked into the story by the disturbing and unsettling atmosphere that Atkins creates and the need to know what happened when Felicity, an eight year old girl, went missing. Magpie Lane is truly gripping, the weight of that disappearance of a small child soon consumes the reader’s thoughts, the writing is stunningly good. The novel slowly teases out the story of a troubled little girl and her family background; her dysfunctional and detached parents, Nick and Mariah, and her devoted nanny, Dee.
As Dee tells her story the reader is left to gauge how reliable a narrator she is, she is questioned by the police in the present but mostly we see the events of the past through her eyes as she wanders back in time for us. The sense of foreboding, almost a pain in the gut, just ramps up the tension as the story unfolds. Atkins plays on our worst fear with such skill and she has an eye for character. Dee is a brilliant creation, a complex woman with a traumatic past of her own. There are plenty of nuances and moments of perception in the story that encourage the reader to think they know what is going on by the truth is always elusive. Magpie Lane is cleverly plotted, the slow release of key information allows the reader to speculate endlessly and yet this is a page turning read. Lovers of the psychological thriller will take to Magpie Lane, it doesn’t indulge in crazy twists, avoids clichés and is grounded in our deeper fears, it feels very real.
Felicity is missing. Dee is being interviewed by the police, Faraday starts by asking about her first meeting with Nick Law. And so we begin, Dee takes us back, seven months ago. She passed Nick on a bridge, he slipped in the algae, they come together, they chat but she knows who he is, knows a lot about him. The new philosophy don, an import form the BBC in London, is here in Oxford to run a college. Dee is twenty-six, a nanny to the peripatetic academic population of the university, ‘transients, many of whom are burdened by inconvenient offspring’. The short term nature of the posts suits her, less attachment. When Nick finds out what she does he practically begs her to come for an interview, the Laws desperately need a nanny, his eight year old daughter Felicity is . . .he can’t seem to complete his thought. Dee senses something, she was thinking of leaving the city but agrees to meet the family anyway:
“I’m Mariah – the Head of House’s spouse.” (her little joke)
Mariah, ‘privileged and beautiful’, has her own business in London, she’ll be away a lot to the time, when at home the couple will be entertaining a lot, functions and so on. Felicity doesn’t speak, except to her father, selective mutism, (although it’s not a matter of choice for the child, something the police are slow to understand). Mariah is Felicity’s step mum, her mother died when she was four but it’s not clear how much this is part of the Felicity’s psychological problem, one of the key questions in the novel. It’s clear neither parent has the time for the child but they have clear ideas on what routines she needs, what books she should read. Dee has sympathy for the child, smothered in a claustrophobic environment. She should walk away from this dysfunctional family but she accepts the job. Although Nick and his wife tell Dee what to do with Felicity she draws her own conclusions about what the child needs, Felicity is an isolated and scared little girl, not feeling the love of her parents. As Felicity and Dee grow closer the tensions in the family and with Dee develop. Dee knows she will have to tread carefully:
“Nobody, after all, wants to be reminded of how precarious parenthood really is – how parents fail their children all the time in small ways and big, and how, in the blink of an eye, those failures can prove catastrophic.”
When Felicity disappears Dee is in London. Nick and Mariah turn on her, their accounts of events over the months Dee was in the their home are starkly different from her own. Where do the historian Linklater and Magpie Lane fit in?
There are many themes underlying the story but I’ll leave you to discover those for yourself. This is a complex tale of human frailty and love very well told. This isn’t the kind of thriller I normally read but the quality defies sub-genre, it’s always a joy when a novel takes me outside my comfort zone and genuinely grabs my attention. Magpie Lane is compelling and thought provoking. At times a heart thumping read.
I can see a readers group loving this novel.
Paul Burke 4/5*
Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins
978 Quercus Hardback April 2020