Book Review – Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

Pages: 352
Published: 1st February 2020
Genre: Mystery
Trigger warnings: Missing child storyline, animal death, misogyny

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 was Felicity silent?

This is the archetypal case of a book which is so good in its entirety, only for an anti-climactic ending to leave a rather bitter taste in the mouth. Intelligently plotted and structured throughout with very well developed characters and vivid, compulsive writing, it delivers an outstanding mystery that fizzes with the utmost intrigue until being resolved in the most uninteresting way possible.

The storytelling is fairly unique and the author shows great inventiveness to bring it all to life, with the attention to detail on show cultivating an immersive atmosphere that is thick with increasing tension. A brilliantly conceived narrator and a clever spin on the dual timeline technique also lifts its credibility by another notch, along with themes which are well researched and explored with subtlety.

Originally from Scotland, Dee is a nanny currently being interviewed by two police officers in connection to the disappearance of eight-year-old Felicity, the child under her care. Felicity is selectively mute and is the daughter of Nick Law, a Dean at the University of Oxford. The police – and Nick – clearly suspect Dee, but she was at the theatre in London on the night Felicity vanished.

In a lengthy period of questioning, Dee explains how Felicity had been a victim of neglect at the hands of Nick and her stepmother Mariah, whom he married after Felicity’s mother died. Since being hired by the family, Dee developed a close bond with Felicity and made it her duty to protect her, a situation made more pressing by bullying and the girl’s tendency to sleepwalk.

Despite raising concerns with Nick in the months preceding Felicity’s disappearance, Dee is largely ignored while Mariah continually fails to grasp the kind of care and attention that is needed to build any sort of relationship with her stepdaughter. Dee fights to maintain her composure under severe scrutiny from the police, aware of her existing criminal record; protesting her innocence.

There are various elements of the plot that make it so gripping, the most critical of those being whether Dee knows a lot more about Felicity’s disappearance than what she is telling the police. It recounts a series of curious or unsettling events and through all of this there is no doubt that something was clearly not right at that household, adding to the suspicion and sense of mystery.

It really begins to build up as the line of questioning from the police becomes more intense, and at this point there are a lot of genuine possibilities, only for the ending to provide the most banal outcome of them all. Aside from that and the unnecessary episode about the kittens, the plot is highly enjoyable to read and the fact the story is quite character-driven is absolutely a good thing here, while there is also a sweet and slow-burning romance that comes as a bit of a surprise.

The whole book is written in Dee’s first person perspective, set in the present but with much of it looking back on previous events which led up to the night Felicity went missing. Her interactions with the police are notable as they do not contain any speech marks – instead almost acting as a part of Dee’s inner monologue. That encapsulates her character well, and through these scenes and her recollections of caring for Felicity, it really allows to you to get into her head.

Dee is such a well written character. A societal misfit with a sad but fascinating backstory, she does not always fill you with complete trust but her care and understanding towards Felicity is never open to question. She is also rather old fashioned with some unusual mannerisms, and in some way this made me connect with her more. One thing that is for sure is that anyone who reads this book will not forget Dee any time soon.

It is also impossible not to feel so very sorry for Felicity, who is so young and so anxious, deprived of the love she should receive from Nick and Mariah. Her selective mutism is handled extremely sensitively, and every moment where she finds the confidence to talk is a heartwarming one. She is likeable and clearly has a sense of adventure, and throughout you just want her to be safe.

Nick is an excellent realisation of someone who is self-important and expects everything in his life to take care of itself, becoming positively nasty when obstacles are put in the way. On the other hand, Mariah was a much more complex case. She was talkative and vivacious with no hint of hostility about her, yet seemed breathtakingly unaware of Felicity’s needs.

Another character to leave a mark on the story was Linklater, who is very chaotic and eccentric but also kind of thoughtful, which made him entertaining to read. His interactions with Dee and Felicity create another dimension and in an affectionate way, feel like they belong to a bygone era. As for the present, the dynamic between the two police officers interviewing Dee was the subject of a lot of emphasis.

For a contemporary novel, the author gives the city of Oxford a classical atmosphere that makes it akin to an extra character. The history of the house is a key sub-plot with frequent stories of its former residents and talk of ghosts, which along with the priest hole and Felicity’s sleepwalking, bring out the total eeriness of it. This setting truly plays its part in capturing the essence of the story.

Another thing which made it an enjoyable read was the writing style, which was full of detail and surprisingly light-hearted in places despite the subject matter. The characters played a key role in that, especially Dee and Linklater. Their conversation about Beyonce made me laugh out loud, for example, and for so much of the book the dialogue was spot on.

If only the ending was better. You are expecting a proper revelation about Felicity’s whereabouts after all of the build up, but it turns out to be obvious and underwhelming. It all happens in the epilogue and negates several of the good things that had come before it. For me, it fell so flat that a part of me wondered if it was worth investing in the plot so much if that was how it ended.

Overall, the experience of reading this book was about as bittersweet as it gets. It is fantastic for so long, with the mystery complemented by such an engaging narrative and characters who leapt off the page, but the ending casts an unwelcome shadow over some of that. That is a huge shame, yet there are a long list of positives and above all that cannot be forgotten.

I loved this book. The writing was excellent and I was so into the mystery and Dee’s perspective on events – but then came the ending. Just my opinion, but it was the least interesting ending that you could have possibly got. That sadly took a whole star off my rating.

My rating: ⭐⭐⭐.5


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