Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins
Published by Quercus on 2 April 2020
What They Say
When the eight-year-old daughter of an Oxford College Master vanishes in the middle of the night, police turn to the Scottish nanny, Dee, for answers.
As Dee looks back over her time in the Master’s Lodging – an eerie and ancient house – a picture of a high achieving but dysfunctional family emerges: Nick, the fiercely intelligent and powerful father; his beautiful Danish wife Mariah, pregnant with their child; and the lost little girl, Felicity, almost mute, seeing ghosts, grieving her dead mother.
But is Dee telling the whole story? Is her growing friendship with the eccentric house historian, Linklater, any cause for concern? And most of all, why is Felicity silent?
Roaming Oxford’s secret passages and hidden graveyards, Magpie Lane explores the true meaning of family – and what it is to be denied one.
What I Say
Make no mistake, reading in these strange times has been a real challenge for me, and I am guessing lots of you at the moment. Having daily, hourly and instant news about the coronavirus is not overly condusive to wanting to pick up a novel is it really?
The thing is, Magpie Lane is one of those novels you can lose yourself in completely, whilst at the same time, feeling a slight (huge) sense of trepidation that something you can’t predict is going to happen. From the moment you turn the first page and meet Dee, Nanny to Mariah and Nick and their daughter Felicity, you realise this is going to be something very different and deliciously unnerving.
The novel starts with Dee being interviewed at a police station by Faraday and Khan, as her charge, Felicity has gone missing and they are desperately searching for clues as to why and where she could have gone. Prompted by Felicity’s parents, she has been asked to come in for questioning as she was close to her, was one of the few people that Felicity would speak to. An added complication to the eight year old’s disappearance is that she has elective mutism, and refuses to speak to anyone except her Dad, Dee and Dee’s friend Linklater – more of Mr Linklater further on in this review..
Right from the start of Magpie Lane, Dee is a very calm, together and perhaps slightly distant character, who seems to be at odds with the extrovert and opinionated Mariah. Like Dee, Mariah feels she is somewhat the outsider in her husband’s world, as he becomes the new Master of an Oxford College. She has no concept of the innate traditions and expectations of the wife of the Master, she decides to renovate the Lodge as she wants, infuriating the other College staff, who cannot abide this confident and vibrant woman who has come into their world.
Nick on the other hand, believes that this position will give him the social standing and recognition he craves. He has taken the role on after a position at the BBC has come to an end, and his drive and ambition has brought his family here to ensure that he is able to fulfill his dreams and his need to be respected and looked up to by other people. With them, they bring eight year old Felicity, who it transpires, is actually the daughter of Nick and his first wife, whose death is referred to in whispers and subtle glances between Nick and Mariah.
Felicity feels like an outsider in her own family, and her mutism and inability to connect with her parents means that she is often overlooked and disregarded. She seems at times to be almost an inconvenience to them, who needs to be looked after in order for them to furt her their own careers. This isn’t to say Nick and Mariah don’t love her – they just seem unsure as to what to do with her.
This sense of disconnection and dislocation is an important theme that runs throughout Magpie Lane. Dee has no family to speak of, and is wary of making a connection with anyone for fear of getting hurt. Mariah is not allowed to be part of her husband’s world unless she adheres to what is socially expected of her, and when she doesn’t, she is disregarded. Linklater, who is hired by Mariah and Nick to uncover the history of the Lodge is living a solitary academic life in Oxford, and seems to be happy in his own world, but at the same time seems to feel a connection to Dee, although she tries to ignore it.
So far so straightforward – why is Magpie Lane so engrossing? Well, what I haven’t told you yet is what happens when Felicity goes to sleep..
In Felicity’s bedroom in the Lodge, is a locked door which is discovered to be a locked priest’s hole. At night, Felicity is disturbed by noises that come from it, and Dee often finds her distressed and telling her about what she has heard and seen coming from it. As Felicity withdraws further into her silent world, her behaviour becomes more and more erratic, and Dee keeps her off school without telling her parents, to keep her safe from the constant bullying and upset she endures from her peers.
As readers, we are drawn into this other world, as we see what Dee and Felicity are witnessing, but Mariah and Nick only see their daughter becoming more distant, and a seemingly indispensible Nanny who is able to form a bond with their daughter that they cannot. The plot moves along at a perfect pace, balanced between Linklater’s investigations into the history of the Lodge, the consequences of it for Felicity, and the slowly disintegrating marriage of Nick and Mariah, as they struggle to cope with what they believe would be the making of them. As they try to present a united and indefeatable face to the College, Mariah discovers she is pregnant.
What worked so well for me about Magpie Lane, was that Lucy Atkins’ writing is always so tightly controlled, and is impossible to determine which way the novel was going to turn next, and I loved that. For me, as a reader, especially at a time like this, I want to lose myself completely in a book, and Magpie Lane draws you in right from the start. Lucy also writes absorbing and relatable characters that serve to bring the reader closer to the novel and become increasingly invested in their lives.
I thought it was also interesting that my allegiances changed towards the characters as the plot developed. Initially, I thought that Dee was a cold and menacing woman, whose relationship with Felicity was going to be the unsettling thread in the novel. However, as the narrative moved forward, instead I felt she was like Felicity, searching for the one thing we all strive for – a sense of belonging and true connection to other people. Similarly, Mariah is someone who initially seemed to be this force of nature, determined to have it all and to ensure she was not forced to stay in her husband’s shadow. Little by little her insecurities and real self was revealed, and we saw a woman who like many of us is just getting by at parenting, and is blindsided by the reality of caring for a child who won’t talk to her and a baby who is not a perfectly behaved insta perfect infant.
Linklater is really the catalyst for the plot to drive forward and also for Dee to start to realise that she may have found someone with whom she can be her authentic self without fear of ridicule. He, like Dee has always been slightly disconnected from the world around him, but together they seem to edge towards some sort of understanding and realisation that in each other they have found what has been missing from their lives. As they work together on the history of the Lodge, Dee sees that Felicity has found her voice, and is being listened to by people who really understand her. From that point on, leading up to Felicity’s disappearance, the novel twists and turns and not only reveals the secrets of the Lodge, but of those who live and have lived there.
Magpie Lane is a novel that is not easy to categorise, and is all the more powerful for it. For me, it was the female characters who were at the heart of the novel, and it was all the more relatable because of it. It is a brilliant and engaging novel, that not only has the traits of an unnerving mystery, but is a heartfelt and emotional novel about our need to belong, to connect with someone else, however difficult and ultimately life changing it might be.
I absolutely loved it, and I think you will too.
Thank you so much to Ella at Quercus Books for my gifted copy in exchange for an honest review and a chance to be part of the Magpie Lane Social Media Blast.
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