Jill Dawson: The Language Of Birds
Published By: Sphere
Buy It: here
What The Blurb Says:
In the summer of 1974, Mandy River arrives in London to make a fresh start and begins working as nanny to the children of one Lady Morven. She quickly finds herself in the midst of a bitter custody battle and the house under siege: Lord Morven is having his wife watched. According to Lady Morven, her estranged husband also has a violent streak, yet she doesn’t seem the most reliable witness. Should Mandy believe her?
As Mandy tries to shield her young charges from harm, her friend Rosemary watches from the wings – an odd girl with her own painful past and a rare gift. This time, though, she misreads the signs.
Drawing on the infamous Lord Lucan affair, this compelling novel explores the roots of a shocking murder from a fresh perspective and brings to vivid life an era when women’s voices all too often went unheard.
What I Say:
At the moment, I am finding myself increasingly drawn to novels that place unheard people at the centre of them, which allow us to hear their voices and lives that might otherwise be silenced by the weight of more prominent ones. The Language of Birds by Jill Dawson is one of those novels.
It recounts the story of Mandy River, who arrives in London in the summer of 1974 with her friend Rosemary. Both are nannies (Rosemary is a Norland Nanny) and Mandy becomes Nanny to Lord Dickie and Lady Katharine Morven. They have two children, a baby called Pamela and a young boy called James.
If you believe that this is simply a coming of age novel in the heydays of swinging London, filled with young women finding themselves and loving life, it is not. That is a very small part of an intelligent and thought-provoking retelling of the infamous Lord Lucan case. Lord Lucan is notorious for his alleged part in the murder of his nanny Sandra Rivett, and his subsequent disappearance. His story has been told numerous times, and in all this, Sandra’s story has been lost. Until now.
Little by little, the story of Rosemary and Mandy before they came to London starts to unfold. They meet while they are in The Poplars, a psychiatric unit, and their friendship grows as each tries to come to terms with their lives and what has brought them to this point. Both have troubled relationships with their mothers, and have tried to be the daughters their mothers wanted, but with little success. We discover that Mandy has had two children, one of whom lives with her parents as their son, and the other child was given up for adoption.
As the young women finally start to forge new lives for themselves, free from familial interference and guilt, Mandy is intoxicated by the life she has fallen into. Lady Morven lends her clothes so she and Rosemary can go out nightclubbing, Mandy loves looking after Pamela and forms a close bond with James, and is instantly attracted to a young man called Neville who lives over the pub she visits.
The unnerving reality however, is that Mandy finds herself in the middle of a bitter divorce between Dickie and Katharine, both desperate for some sign of personal or parental failing which will strengthen their legal position. Lord Morven no longer lives with his family, but has the house constantly watched, anonymous phone calls taunt them day and night, and he is determined to ensure that Katharine fails in her role as mother, so he can have sole custody of the children.
Mandy and her friend Rosemary find themselves drawn into this privileged world, as Lord Morven realises by charming those closest to Katharine, he can gain the evidence he needs to humiliate his wife and not only ruin her social standing but ensure his children are removed permanently from her care. When Lord Morven asks them to accompany him with their charges to Scotland, Rosemary and Mandy blindly believe they will be treated as guests, as oppose to members of the staff. However, when they are there, Mandy finds herself reassessing her opinion of Lord Morven and starting to question her loyalty to Katharine.
The narrative switches between Mandy and Rosemary, and in understanding both of the women, we also see how Rosemary is haunted by the fact that as her mental health worsens, she is able to hear voices – the language of birds which taunt and torment her, and also foretell Mandy’s fate. There is a sense of foreboding which only adds to the tension that underpins every page.
I loved the fact that this novel is filled with so many different ideas, of motherhood and what it means to be a mother. It is a novel about class and privilege, and that just because you may have the financial means, it does not necessarily bring you happiness and fulfillment. It is also about language, and the power that it holds. Mandy cannot find the words to tell her son that he is hers, Rosemary is haunted by the language that she hears and cannot tell anyone else about, and both of the young womens’ Mothers cannot find the words to communicate with their daughters.
As the novel reaches its awful conclusion and the repercussions of the case for those who are left behind, instead of focussing on the man who is at the root of all of this, we are look at the young woman. As the reader, we are made to confront the reality of how an inquest like this is dealt with. Mandy is fodder for the press, her attractiveness is a selling point that seemingly adds to the glamour of this case. Lord Morven is portrayed as a dashing Lord with a penchant for fast cars, gambling and a plethora of aristocratic friends who are ensure he is able to evade the justice he should face.
What Jill Dawson brilliantly achieves is in The Language of Birds is to make us question ourselves and the ingrained social norm which is to see the woman as a faceless victim. In creating a character like Mandy, and following her life, her hopes and dreams, we understand that she is a living, breathing woman. We all need to start looking beyond the sensationalist headlines and instead acknowledge that behind every victim is a life lived, a person loved and in this case, a world shattered.
I loved it.