Quercus | 2020 (2 April) | 354p | Review copy | Buy the book
Dee becomes a person of interest to the police when 8-year-old Felicity disappears from her Oxford home. Dee is Felicity’s nanny and Felicity is no ordinary child. She is the daughter of Nick, the new high-profile Master of one of Oxford’s colleges, and the stepdaughter of Nick’s glamorous and pregnant Danish wife, Mariah. Felicity is selectively mute. She hardly ever speaks and, when she does, it’s only to her father and never to Mariah. But now she speaks to Dee, the Scottish nanny who feels drawn to this strange child, who collects bones and other creepy things, arranging them in enigmatic patterns on her bedroom floor, to keep her safe from the ghosts she believes haunts her home, an old college building with a past. Dee joins forces with a curious and eccentric house historian, Linklater, to try and help Felicity understand what secrets the house hides. This is Dee’s side of the story and when Felicity vanishes what are the police to think?
I was so excited to read Magpie Lane and for two very good reasons. I loved Lucy Atkins’ previous novel The Night Visitor, with its gorgeously told creepy tale of the relationship between a writer and the housekeeper of a manor house. Secondly, Magpie Lane is set in my hometown of Oxford. I know well the lane, with its infamous history, that names the novel and I love where this book takes us – into the old colleges, the back lanes and alleys, the hidden churchyards, as well as into its stuffy and old traditions. This can be a claustrophobic place, especially if you’re not used to it and are unfamiliar with Oxford’s ‘town and gown’ divisions. For all its faults, this is the Oxford I know and love and, although it’s stifling at times, it is also so beautiful and so full of history.
This Oxford is exactly what Lucy Atkins captures in Magpie Lane. Dee is an outsider, just like Nick and Mariah, and they resist its charm. Mariah removes all of the portraits of men’s heads from their lodgings. Nick is a television figure and an unpopular Master. He isn’t one to cope with the restrictions of his college’s Governing Body. He and Mariah see their stay in Oxford to be transitory, and so, too, does Dee. She’s reluctant to take the job at all. But then she falls for Felicity and Linklater comes along, a man who couldn’t be more steeped in Oxford tradition and history if he tried. He is almost part of its buildings, forgotten and neglected by the city that he has felt unable to escape. The descriptions of Oxford and its hidden places are so gorgeously done. I especially enjoyed the pages we spend exploring the quiet and secret churchyards, where so many familiar and significant figures rest unnoticed.
Felicity is a part of this world. Although this is on one level a missing child crime novel, that’s not really what Magpie Lane is about. This is the story of Dee, Felicity and Linklater, as told by Dee. There is a strong supernatural feel to it. There are moments that are genuinely disturbing. Felicity herself is the novel’s haunted child, while her home makes for a perfect haunted house. Linklater is almost the exorcist. Dee herself is a mystery. Glimpses of her past are revealed throughout and this is complemented by the questioning from the police, one of whom is intriguingly named Faraday (Dee really does seem to be inside a Faraday cage at times), which makes the reader also ask questions about the truth of what Dee has told us. Each chapter begins and ends with more of the interrogation, again told by Dee to us. In between the questions, Dee reveals more about her relationship with Felicity, Linklater and Felicity’s parents. It is utterly engrossing and not a little creepy.
Linklater is my favourite character of the novel. What a wonderful creation he is! He is completely eccentric, almost humorously so, but he also feels like a tragic character to me. He, too, is stuck in a cage, like Dee and like Felicity. I enjoyed his presence in the novel very much indeed.
Magpie Lane is such a delight. It’s clever, always beautifully written and its characters are all enormously involving, even Nick and especially Mariah, his wife who slowly unravels before our eyes. It’s a puzzle to work out as we try and understand Dee while we fall deeply for the troubled Felicity, just as Dee does. And all the time we’re reminded of the past forcing its way into the present. The past surrounds and fills this house. Lucy Atkins captures the atmosphere and chills of this perfectly, making Magpie Lane an irresistible and always entertaining read.
The Night Visitor