Author: Lucy Atkins
Publication: Quercus, hardcover, 2020
Setting: Oxford, Great BritainDescription: Dee, now middle-aged, never made it to Oxford as a student despite her brilliance at mathematics, but she has worked there since her 20s as a nanny, mostly in short-term positions to avoid forming attachments. But Felicity, her current charge, is different. The troubled daughter of the newest Oxford Master is selectively mute, and her father and pregnant stepmother need childcare so hire Dee with unseemly haste. Dee and Felicity develop a strong relationship, which seems to annoy her busy and neglectful father, Nick. Then Felicity disappears from the Master’s Lodging while Dee is in London at the theatre and, upon her return, she finds that the simmering animosity from her employers has resulted in her becoming a prime suspect to the police.
My Impression: In an email to readers, author Sharon Bolton described Magpie Lane as a “haunting tale of family life among the privileged cloisters of Oxford academia [that] will be tough to beat” as her favorite read of the year, which piqued my interest. It is great fun to visit the Oxford colleges and imagine living there, as I have done; however, in this book, one sees a less appealing side of the city of dreaming spires. Nick is arrogant and his new role as Master is more challenging than he anticipated. The Oxford dons are snide and condescending to Nick’s lovely Danish wife, Mariah, a restorer of antique wallpaper. Dee is concerned that the children at Felicity’s school are bullies and the teachers apparently do nothing to help her adjust. Dee’s only friend is Linklater, hired by Nick to write a history of the Master’s Lodging, a quirky researcher who never finished his degree but lurks in his original college juggling various part-time jobs, including as a tour guide. He shares unusual stories about Oxford with Dee and Felicity that are not really suitable for a child.
Telling her story in flashbacks as she is questioned by the police, Dee comes across as a sympathetic but melancholy figure, with secrets in her past and a deep affection for her charge. Slowly, she becomes aware that she is a “person of interest” in this investigation, although she considers herself the only person who really cares about Felicity since her mother died.
The speed with which she’d decided that I was the right person to look after her silent and bereaved stepdaughter, unsupervised, for long hours, when I hadn’t even set eyes on the child – when they knew nothing at all about me – was astonishing, even for a desperate parent. But perhaps when you are as privileged and beautiful as Mariah, things do drop into your lap in this way: solutions, staff, help – miracles.And what about the tiny locked room off Felicity’s bedroom? Mariah believes it was a 16th-century priest hole that was later refurbished as a child’s nursery. Because the wallpaper might be toxic, Mariah orders them to keep the room locked but somehow Felicity keeps getting into it and Dee begins to think the room is haunted. Could there be a connection to Felicity’s disappearance?2022 Cloak and Dagger Reading Challenge.
Until that moment I’d had no intention of working for them but as Mariah beamed manically at me, it occurred to me that it was not the adults who desperately needed my help, but the poor child. This anxious, silent, displaced little girl, I suspected, needed me more than her parents could possibly imagine. I decided that I would wait and meet her – I felt I owed her that much, at least.