With The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins (reviewed here) one of my books of the year in 2017, I was thrilled when a surprise copy of Magpie Lane arrived earlier this year. My enormous thanks to Ella Patel at Quercus for sending me a copy of Magpie Lane in return for an honest review.
Available from Quercus now in e-book, hardback and audio, Magpie Lane will be published in paperback on 29th April 2021 and is available through the links here.
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.
My review of Magpie Lane
Felicity is missing.
What a fabulous book Magpie Lane is. It starts innocuously enough, in spite of the fact a child is missing, and gradually builds until the reader is thoroughly ensnared. Lucy Atkins’ writing is exquisite. Aside from her wonderful style that captures Dee’s narrative persona and voice with razor sharp clarity, she plots with such finesse that although I had my suspicions about what might occur, or how the story might be resolved, I was kept mesmerised and thoroughly entertained. The skill with which the story is told through a single interview with the police and yet covers Dee’s entire life and, indeed, some 600 years of Oxford’s history within the time limitations is just brilliant. I thought the literary references, alongside the geographical and historical aspects of the Oxford setting gave a texture and depth that was perfect. Add in the variety of dialogue, paragraph and sentence structure and I loved reading Magpie Lane.
What appealed to me most, I think, was the level of psychology underpinning plot and character so that those elements bordering the supernatural are completely believable, and even those explained by more mundane reasoning leave the reader feeling unsettled and wondering. I felt Lucy Atkins achieved what might be called a modern Shakespearean atmosphere that was simply stunning. The plot hinges entirely on the behaviours of characters arising from understandable and devastating events they have experienced so that the reader feels as if they have lived them alongside the people in the book. Even Oxford itself has an utterly convincing part to play. In Magpie Lane I was led down Oxford’s alleyways, visited its graveyards and pubs and experienced vividly its traditions and prejudices.
Dee is a triumph. Her ability to manipulate, to care, to garner both empathy and sympathy from readers is astonishing. On occasion her actions or her selective truths should have made me morally outraged, but I wanted her to triumph against Nick, against the establishment, against the police and against her past. Although Dee is the somewhat unreliable narrator, all the characters feel vivid, flawed and hypnotic. I loathed Nick with a passion and constantly had a feeling of Old Nick, or the devil, lurking in a sinister manner every time he was present in the story. Indeed, reading Magpie Lane had a curious effect on me as a reader, as I felt almost no empathy towards Mariah whom I felt should have had my sympathy given her struggle with motherhood and her marriage. Lucy Atkins’ writing made respond in a manner that felt wrong morally but absolutely befitting the narrative so that I had to question my own beliefs and attitudes. It’s difficult to articulate further without revealing too much plot but Magpie Lane is a book that gets under the skin of the reader…
Thematically, Magpie Lane triumphs further. There’s tradition and education, family and loss, guilt and mental illness, fulfilment and the supernatural, history, friendship and love, making for a layered and evocative read. I have a feeling that if I were to reread Magpie Lane I’d find so much that I may have missed the first time around. Not a word feels superfluous or discordant.
Magpie Lane is one of those books that the reader begins feeling they will fly through it and it might be quite ordinary. It takes little time to realise that this is a book to savour, to immerse yourself in and to enjoy completely because it is curiously hypnotic. I thought it was brilliant.
About Lucy Atkins
Lucy Atkins is an award-winning author, feature journalist and Sunday Times book critic. She has written for newspapers including the Guardian, The Times, the Sunday Times and the Telegraph as well as many UK magazines. She teaches on the Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford University.