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.
Magpie Lane takes a familiar scenario – that of a missing child – but casts it in a whole new light, delivering something that feels unique in the set up. It’s told from the perspective of Dee, nanny to the missing Felicity who vanishes one night from her Oxford home. The novel is predominantly told through Dee’s extended interview with the police. She hasn’t been arrested, but is assisting them with their enquiries, and this allows the reader to learn more about Dee, Felicity, and the circumstances surrounding Felicity’s disappearance. It’s a great structure and works brilliantly to hook the reader in early on.
From the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to make of Dee. The reader is privy to her thoughts during the interview, and as such we know that she’s not being entirely forthcoming during her questioning. Some information she withholds because she feels that it is irrelevant, but there are elements that feel more like a deliberate omission. Knowing this, I couldn’t help but question Dee’s reliability as a narrator – if she’s not sharing everything with the authorities, what might she be holding back from us? Of course, as I was reading, I was very much aware that I may just be unnecessarily suspicious – Dee has a concrete alibi for the night of Felicity’s disappearance, after all – and I was intrigued to see how it would play out.
Dee is an odd character, but one that I rather like despite my suspicious mind. As we learn more about her, it’s clear that she has experienced more than her fair share of grief and hardship, and her rather solitary life makes more sense as we learn more about her. She’s very practical and down to earth, and she is the only one who makes any time for Felicity, who very clearly just needs a little love and attention – something that she doesn’t get from her father and stepmother in what is quickly shown to be a dysfunctional family environment. I love the bond that Dee forms with Felicity – she doesn’t seek to replace a parent in this little girl’s life yet provides the support and understanding that this somewhat unusual and sensitive child clearly needs.
There are plenty of secrets to unravel within the novel, and I was gripped throughout. I did have my suspicions as to the outcome, but I read on, eager to see if I was right or not. I like the slightly gothic feel that Atkins adds to the narrative through the eerie priest’s hole in Felicity’s bedroom – it’s not quite horror, but there’s certainly a ghostly feel to those passages and some of the events that take place in the master’s lodge. I also found the narrative to be extremely claustrophobic, particularly in Dee’s police interview – despite their assurances that she can leave at any time, there’s an edge to the questioning and the good cop / bad cop routine that gets under Dee’s, and the reader’s, skin.
Highly recommended for those looking for an original take on the missing child scenario.