Book Review: The Nanny by Gilly Macmillan
By Jenny MaloneySeptember 9, 2019
Gilly Macmillan, New York Times bestselling author of What She Knew, conjures a dark and unpredictable tale of family secrets with The Nanny, which explores the lengths people will go to hurt one another.
Thirty years ago Jocelyn Holt’s nanny, Hannah, disappeared without saying a word to anyone. All of Hannah’s belongings were gone. Her bed was made. No trace of her was ever found. The only thing Jocelyn understands is what her mother, Lady Virginia Holt, tells her: “Hannah left and you may as well know she left because of you. You are bad girl, Jocelyn, a very bad girl. Is it any wonder Hannah couldn’t stand to look after you anymore?”
As soon as she can, Jocelyn leaves too. But a tragedy forces her and her daughter, Ruby, to move back into the family manor with her newly-widowed mother. Jocelyn is determined to make the best of things. But she’s struggling as a single parent and her always-antagonistic mother is no help. And after Ruby finds a skull on the manor grounds, the situation only gets worse.
Then, a miracle: Nanny Hannah reappears, bringing all her secrets with her.
The Nanny by Gilly Macmillan is a twisty-turny exploration of mother-daughter relationships. It delves into the question of maternal love and the consequences of that love turning dark. Secrets. Lies. Coverups. Murder. This novel has all of it.
Told in alternating points of view, the reader is given Jocelyn’s perspective, Virginia’s, and Hannah’s. As the story progresses, more and more cards are revealed, making the reader bounce from one person’s side to another.
At one point you’re sympathetic to Jocelyn—abandoned so long ago—and then, in the next section, you become frustrated with her not trusting her own daughter. For a moment you can’t believe how cruel and distant Virginia is, then Macmillan explains what’s driving her and you empathize. Hannah’s actions bounce between understandable and malevolent. The whole novel is a suspenseful poker match.
The story hinges on memories: who remembers what, when. Jocelyn was very young when Hannah left, but she clearly knows how she felt growing up without her:
Lake Hall feels stagnant and obsolete to me now, especially in the absence of my father. The walls seem to harbor a cold, uncomfortable energy, pervasive as damp. Sometimes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up unaccountably. I don’t want Ruby to acquaint herself with every detail of this place, because this is not the backdrop I want her to grow up against.
…As I wander around Lake Hall with Ruby happier memories sometimes pierce my darker feelings. They feel like respite. I remember when my nanny, Hannah was my world and Lake Hall felt like our private, perfect domain. That sweet nostalgia never lasts long. The memories inevitably sour when I recall it was my behavior that drove Hannah away and how in the aftermath my relationship with my mother took a downward spiral we haven’t recovered from.
But when Hannah shows up on the Holt doorstep, Jocelyn isn’t 100% certain that this woman is her long-lost beloved nanny. Time and distance change everyone.
However, maybe Hannah’s reappearance is wishful thinking on Jocelyn’s part. Maybe she desperately wants her mother figure back so badly that she’s willing to accept anything a stranger tells her. There’s no proof that this Hannah is her Hannah.
Plus, if it is her Hannah, where did she go? And why did she leave without a trace?
Virginia, Jocelyn’s mother, is certain that the mysterious woman is not nanny Hannah. Because Virginia knows exactly why and how Hannah left:
We gave Jocelyn one of my pills on the night of the party. It was all we could think to do. We gave her a pill and hoped for the best.
“She’s asleep,” Alexander said when he came out of her bedroom. He looked like a man on the very brink of insanity.
“What did she see?”
He couldn’t answer. He shook like a dog on its way to the vet. I held his head between my hands and steadied it, seeking eye contact, but he couldn’t look at me. I slapped his cheek, “What did she see?” I shouted, though I shouldn’t have. It could have been the thing that undid us. He put his hand gently over my mouth.
“Shh,” he said. “It’s okay, she’s asleep.” His pupils were pinpricks. Sweat stood out on his temples. The attic corridor seemed to close in around us.
While we talked, Hannah lay on the back stairs. Blood pooled beneath her head and matted her hair. Her eyes were shut and I was glad about that.
So, if Hannah is dead—who is this new Hannah? What does she want? How does she know so much about the Holt family’s history?
In The Nanny, Macmillan does a superb job of creating questions in the reader, then answering those questions, only to create more questions. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, there’s a new wrench in the plan, a new point of view to consider, a new clue that will lead the reader somewhere else.