Magpie Lane, by Lucy Atkins.
A Scottish Nanny is being interviewed by two detectives in the university city of Oxford: they wish to know her version of events leading up to the disappearance of her eight-year-old charge, Felicity, the daughter of a new, hugely influential and charismatic College Master. What is the child like? Has she many friends? Does she ‘get on’ with her new, pregnant stepmother, glamorous Mariah? Is she still grieving for her mother, dead for four years? For Felicity suffers from a number of psychological problems, not least ‘selective mutism; she communicates with no-one except her father – and that seldom because of the demands of his job and social life.
Dee is eager to answer their questions accurately; the sooner they can find her damaged little girl, the better – but she gradually sees that the questions take a sinister turn, one slanted by Felicity’s parents to portray Dee as having a negative influence on the child, innocently caused by gradually winning Felicity’s trust with affection and support, virtues spectacularly lacking in the little girl’s life. Felicity now ‘speaks’ to Dee reasonably often, even less to her father, and never to Mariah: it’s painfully clear where her loyalties lie.
An added and frankly eerie complication is that the ancient house they have been allocated seems to have more than its fair share of Things That Go Bump In The Night, and Mariah’s attempts to redecorate in cool Nordic colours (she’s from Denmark) horrify the other Oxford Dons, stout supporters of 400 year old traditions: could they have given this illustrious position to someone Gravely Unsuitable?
Ms Atkins takes us on an intimate tour of the great city, bastion of all that is noble in Western thought, ‘of history, literature, philosophy, politics, art and scientific discovery’, but she cleverly presents quite a different side to those who frequent its dreaming spires: lofty thought still descends regularly into dog-eat-dog rivalry, arrogance and ignoble disapproval. This is no place for Felicity’s spectacularly dysfunctional family, still less for her, and the new information that a child may have been murdered in Felicity’s bedroom a century before fills Dee with dread: are they haunted, and where is her poor, damaged, mute little girl?
Ms Atkins has created an intelligent and fascinating mystery, with strong, credible characters and a pace that doesn’t falter; add to that a wealth of intriguing historical details about Oxford luminaries of the past, and we have the perfectly written ingredients for a great reading experience. FIVE STARS