Book Review: Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins

Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins roams through Oxford’s secret passages and hidden graveyards, as the disappearance of a young, traumatized girl ensnares her nanny in an investigation that explores the true meaning of family—and what it is to be denied one.

It was pure luck that brought Dee into the lives of the Law family. An innocent morning walk led her to meet Dr. Nick Law during his morning jog on the mathematical bridge in Oxford, and by that afternoon, she had been hired to nanny his unusual daughter, Felicity.

The 8-year-old girl has been selectively mute—incapable of speaking to anyone but her father—for four long years, ever since her mother, Ana, died. She’s painfully withdrawn, prone to compulsive scratching, and is obsessed with patterns and bones. Dee, a middle-aged woman who has been a nanny to many families over the last 20 years, immediately takes to the peculiar girl, and the pair forms a powerful bond.

A bond that has now put Dee squarely in the spotlight, as Felicity has disappeared.

Children go missing all the time, roughly 140,000 of them a year in Britain alone—I have looked up the statistics—but there is something about Felicity’s disappearance that has sparked a national frenzy. Perhaps it is because she is the daughter of the Master, the Head of House, and his beautiful Scandinavian wife, a new mother herself: the perfect family in a photogenic Oxford setting that is shorthand for a certain kind of British privilege and status. And perhaps because of that, there is something darker going on here, too. Vile comments are appearing beneath the #FindFelicity postings on social media—accusations, suspicions.

 

The mob is turning.

In a narrative that sways back and forth from Dee’s interrogation with the police to her time with the Laws, a complex and tragic story unfolds: one of a traumatized girl prone to night terrors and sleepwalking who is convinced her new home is haunted; of secret affairs and suicides, lost children, and terrible mistakes driven by panic, dangerous wallpaper, and buried guilt; and of a narcissistic, selfish family that has no time or energy to spare for anyone that doesn’t live up to their standards of perfection.

The deeper Dee delves into the Laws’ lives, the more we see that their glamorous surface success—full of celebrities, dinner parties, and jaunts to Hong Kong—in one of England’s most storied cities masks a neglectful private life. Poor Felicity is never accommodated by her father and new stepmother, only grudgingly tolerated. The girl’s sole friend is Dee. With the birth of a new baby, she becomes even more of an after-thought.

And now, she’s gone.

Did Felicity run away? Did she sleepwalk past her exhausted stepmother and disappear into the night, only to be snatched by a stranger or injured in a fall? Or, as the police suspect, did Dee steal her from her true family as a replacement for the daughter she lost decades ago?

Now that Nick had turned on me, I’d have to watch every word that came out of my mouth because, if it came down to it, the police were always going to believe an Oxford College Master, with his degrees and awards and famous friends, above a middle-aged nobody like me, a woman without connections or accolades, without any formal qualifications—and a criminal record.

 

And now, three days later, as I sit in this stuffy interview room, staring into Faraday’s bloodshot eyes, I am aware that this particular dynamic is playing out, somewhere, beneath these questions. They must know about my criminal record; it would have leaped out the moment someone typed my name into the police database. They cannot possibly be unaware of it—that would be like failing to notice that the intruder in your kitchen is holding a carving knife.

 

And yet they have still not brought it up. Faraday’s questions may seem rambling, even random, but they are not. They have planned out this interview, I realize. They are strategizing. They might not have a crime yet, but they have a criminal.

Magpie Lane unfurls like a Fibonacci spiral—which is fitting, given the narrator’s love of mathematics and Felicity’s obsession with patterns. As the narrative spins back and forth between the “now” of the interrogation and the “then” of Dee’s months with the Laws, Atkins has much to say about history’s propensity for repeating itself.

Just as Oxford rigidly fights to maintain its traditions and strict delineation between “town” and “gown” in the face of this new Master’s flashy ways, Dee finds herself falling into the same role so many women on the fringes have been pigeonholed into before: that of witch and scapegoat. The silent Felicity is treated like a changeling by everyone but Dee; her father, Nick, is certain she will one day return to the cheerful, babbling baby she once was, stubbornly refusing to acknowledge how much her trauma has irrevocably changed her.

This may be a modern story, full of CCTV cameras and iPads, but it’s also one that’s rich with such superstitious flavor, giving it the Gothic air of a ghost story. Felicity is equally drawn to and repulsed by the priest hole in her bedroom, convinced the spirits of two little boys are hiding inside, and is driven to draw out hex signs in salt and dead bees. Stepmother Mariah has built a career around restoring antique wallpaper, and several scenes call to mind Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Dee often takes the girl on walks through graveyards with their friend Linklater, a treasure trove of gruesome historical facts, and Felicity loves to collect animal bones.

It’s also a story of how grief reshapes those afflicted and how it can stunt a life. Perhaps it wasn’t luck but fate that brought Dee into Felicity’s life; perhaps a broken person needs another broken person in order to heal and feel whole again. And, ultimately, Magpie Lane is about how far someone might go to protect the ones they love.

Atkins has painted a truly haunting portrait of a fractured family with powerful, evocative prose. Dee is a narrator we quickly empathize with, and Felicity is a compelling figure well worth our pity. From the moment their lives intertwine, we’re drawn inescapably into their current and want—badly—for both to have a happy ending despite all of the obstacles.

For those craving a female-centric story with darkness but also heart, an emotional thriller devoid of shocking violence or gore, Magpie Lane is guaranteed to satisfy.

See also: Layers of History in Oxford’s Alleys by Lucy Atkins, author of Magpie Lane

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