I cannot recommend this book highly enough, in fact Magpie Lane could be my book of the year. Yes, I know it’s only the first of May, but this haunting tale of family life among the privileged cloisters of Oxford academia will be tough to beat.
Eight-year-old Felicity is missing, and suspicion falls upon her middle-aged Scottish nanny, Dee, a secretive, prickly character whom we only get to know slowly (and whom we never quite trust, but maybe that’s just me.) To say Felicity has issues is putting it mildly; mourning the loss of her mother, frightened by the strange old house, she’s a selective mute, physically incapable of speaking to all but a select few. Her high-achieving father and glamorous Scandinavian stepmother seem oblivious to her pain, leaving her to rely increasingly upon Dee, who responds in turn to the lonely lost little girl.
And then Felicity is really lost. A frantic police hunt ensues. The narrative alternates between Dee in police custody, interviewed by increasingly suspicious officers, and fending off her employers’ accusations (which seem outlandish, but are they?) and flashbacks when we learn more about Dee’s life with this dysfunctional and disturbing family.
I am in awe of how Lucy Atkins writes about Oxford. I know to my cost how hard it is to set a novel in so famous a city, but Lucy gets under its skin, revealing its dark and haunting secrets; she shows us an Oxford beneath the surface. This book toys with the Gothic, but with a very light touch, the creepiness is subtle, the sense of dread so cleverly woven into the day-to-day narrative that we hardly notice until we find ourselves terrified.
I’m a couple of chapters away from finishing as I write this and hardly dare go on. I so much want it to end well for Dee, Felicity (and Linklater, the weirdest love-interest ever) but don’t see how it possibly can. Whatever happens, though, I know I’m in safe hands. Lucy Atkins is an astonishing story-teller.