[I decided to read this 2020 novel in three sections, writing about each section before reading on.]
2 July 2020
I’m liking this, because Lucy Atkins knows exactly what she’s doing. She’s the sort of author who’s won awards, and we can be sure that all the uncertainties and ambiguities in this first one-third of the novel are absolutely deliberate. Meanwhile, at the point I’ve reached, our first-person narrator has just received information she’s presenting as something of a bombshell. Her account of what was said to her after she arrived back at the house where she’s a nanny has just been denied by the woman who said it, the mother of the child in her care. Lucy Atkins knows we’ll fast-forward in our minds to a time when the version offered by Dee, the narrator, is called into question in the full glare of publicity. The investigating police officer has already noted that it’s Dee’s word against the mother’s—a woman we know is much better at making herself attractive. Meanwhile, of course, we can’t be at all certain that the version Dee herself has told us is reliable. She’s very selective in what she’s told us so far, and very partial in her judgments. These are all plausible, but we only have her word for any of it.
There’s a lot we don’t know about Dee. She doesn’t let us know to begin with that she only knows all the Oxford university types she mentions because she’s a nanny—her favourite pastime of working on her project of proving a difficult mathematical hypothesis has suggested something quite different—and she doesn’t mention the fact that she once had a daughter until about five or six chapters in. This girl had the same curly dark hair as Felicity, the girl she’s now looking after, and occasionally a flash of recognition sends her into a kind of vertigo of anguish she is only just able to control. We do know that she left Scotland following something terrible, that she travels very light—the mother is astonished she is only bringing one suitcase of clothes and possessions—and that she is very certain that her own take on child-care is superior to that of just about everyone in Oxford that she’s ever worked for.
This definitely goes for the father Nick Law, the new Master of an old and respectable college, and his glamorous Danish interiors specialist wife Mariah. Felicity is their eight-year-old sleepwalking, passively self-harming selective mute of a daughter but, in Dee’s presentation of it, for the seven months of her employment they have just wanted to get on with their own lives. He’s got all the stresses of a famously difficult Senior Common Room and governing body to sort out, having come to Oxford from a big management role in television, while she is fixated on her wallpaper-restoring business in London. (Yes, really—and Dee wants us to raise our eyebrows.) They are almost never there for their daughter, the one who went missing three days ago.
Actually, Mariah is Nick Law’s second wife. His first died just over four years before, ‘after a long illness’ which Dee assumes must have been cancer. Except they never confirm this, and change the subject when she tries to bring it up. Felicity had been very close to her—I can’t remember who describes to Dee what sounds like excessively hands-on mothering on her part, never allowing the child out of her sight—and the girl has never spoken to anybody except her father since the death. There seem to be some dark corners they don’t openly discuss, but Mariah has apparently been unguarded enough at times for Dee to become curious. Is she finding it hard not to confess something she feels bad about, like the way they treated the first wife? This is what Dee is implying but, of course, this could be Lucy Atkins throwing us off the scent. It could just as easily be about Dee over-interpreting an inevitable sense of guilt on the new wife’s part. She had met Nick through her work with Ana, the first wife.
At this point, our narrator has carefully built up a case against the father and stepmother. She describes the picturesque 400-year-old house they’ve spent the summer having loudly and intrusively modernised, the photogenic Oxford surroundings—she deliberately equates this with their ‘privileged’ lives—and, if we are to believe her, they really do sound ‘neglectful’, a word she uses when the police inspector asks her. All of which, of course, proves nothing. Dee’s version of what Mariah told her when she arrived home from a short trip to London—she says she’d got a phone call while on the tube to tell her Felicity was missing—might be true, or it might not. It’s very plausible. Mariah’s exhaustion and the agonising pain of mastitis as she nurses her almost newborn son—I didn’t mention that little detail—was enough to persuade her she hadn’t really caught a glimpse of the girl moving towards the front door. Dee lets the inspector know that no amount of exhaustion would have stopped her in such circumstances.
Or is it just us she’s telling? Lucy Atkins has opted for a twin-narrative technique which has short, present-tense interchanges in the police station framing much longer descriptions of how Dee met Nick Law by accident, and how she—if we are to believe her—became the only person in Felicity’s life to show her any love. The time the father spent with the girl was pitifully limited each day, he never asked either Dee or the girl what they had been doing and, when Mariah was in the room, it was clear who was getting all his attention. Mariah, meanwhile, seems quite unable to cope with a stepdaughter who has never said a word to her. Does this make them monstrous? Dee wants us to believe so.
This isn’t all, because there’s another character who might be crucial. He’s a local historian of domestic architecture, Dr Linklater (‘Just call me Linklater’), who is an almost pantomime Oxford type. Of course, because of the world we’re in, we suspect this might be an elaborate act—but, when he comes to the house, Felicity is immediately interested. The night he first arrives to introduce himself he makes his way, uninvited, straight up to Felicity’s bedroom. By the time Dee catches up with him he’s looking into the secret space behind a little door that is supposed to be kept locked. Dee, highly unusually for her, forgives him his oddness. He’s just an unworldly academic, surely—and besides, the effect on Felicity is extraordinary. He wonders if the space really might be a priest-hole, as everyone suspects, and his talk of why these had to be created, and the tortures Catholics were made to suffer, makes the girl open her eyes wide. Dee sees something like the ghost of a smile on her face, which is unprecedented.
That priest-hole is a big bone of contention. Mariah, who Dee thinks is more interested in wallpaper than in her stepdaughter, suspects the green on the walls inside it is arsenic-based as well as rare, and keeps the key hidden. But Felicity seems to have searched through Mariah’s private things to find it and unlock the door. Her birthday gift to her stepmother, on a bright, celebratory morning in which Dee feels the happy parents seem hardly to notice anybody else in the room—his hand on her swollen belly!—ruins everything. It’s a packet of dead bees, which they all know must have come from the priest-hole. They’ve had pest control to investigate, but Felicity must have gathered them before they had been cleared away….
One last thing. Are the half-perceived presences hovering on landings or behind doors no more than Dee says she suspects, just the house settling and old doors creaking open? Often, she is sure Felicity is just behind a door, but she turns out not to be. A supernatural element? Does the house hate the new occupants for the way they’ve rampaged through it in their—especially Mariah’s—quest to brighten it up? I’m reminded of Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger, another novel about troubled people in a house that might, or might not, be able to express its unease through signs that some characters seek to explain away…. Whatever, Linklater lets Dee know how appalled he is by the changes—but, of course (and I must stop saying of course every other paragraph), this is likely to be another false trail.
Troubled people. In this middle third of the novel every single character is at best marginalised, and at worst treated as an outsider who simply doesn’t belong. I mentioned the house possibly making its unease felt, but it goes much further than that. The college old guard—and this includes the men and women who service the needs of all of them—really hate the new Master’s media- and celebrity-based way of raising the college’s profile. And they hate his wife even more. If she had expected to charm the pants off them as she has been used to doing all her life—you could cut with a knife the Schadenfreude of Dee’s tone as she describes it—well, she’s got it wrong this time. In fact, if we’re to believe Dee’s presentation of it, Mariah’s life seems almost to be falling apart by Christmas, before she’s even had the baby. And meanwhile, at school, Felicity is having to endure the kind of bullying that happens under the radar, excluding her and making her so miserable Dee often keeps her away.
Dee. Almost exactly half-way through this section—i.e. half-way through the novel—she reveals something that comes as no surprise at all. She has a criminal record. Another non-surprise: Felicity’s mother, the one who had been so clingy she hadn’t even let her four-year-old go to play-school, took her own life. Why might this have happened? What is it that her husband and the new woman in his life might have done to cause her such distress? And why do they never, ever talk about the suicide, but simply tell people that she died ‘after a long illness’?
Meanwhile, during the police questioning that frames the whole narrative, Dee makes the extraordinary decision not to mention the other person in Oxford who became a hugely important part of Felicity’s life during this ‘Michaelmas’ or autumn term. This is Linklater—and he’s also become such a soulmate for Dee on the odd little visits the three of them make to the local cemeteries that she imagines how they must look like the perfect little family. If we are to believe her, there are sometimes moments of ‘electricity’ that pass through him as well as her, or shared childhood memories, or the hasty, red-faced pulling away of a man who isn’t used to this sort of intimacy.
Dee’s decision not to mention him—she states explicitly that they police do not need to know—starts to seem highly suspicious as she tells us of one moment, just after Felicity’s last day of term, when the little girl tells him she doesn’t want to go home, she wants to go with him. All the reader can do is speculate why any witness would want to cover this up. Because she strongly suspects, maybe two or three months after this incident, that Felicity has gone there—or, perhaps, that she definitely knows it? Or, since the incident, that Dee has scared him off by her neediness and he’s out of both their lives? I’m sure other possibilities are available.
Something that goes with troubled people and their unhappy lives is also a thing that Dee wants to talk about. Dysfunctional families. She’s trying to convince Faraday, the investigating officer (I’m assuming it’s a coincidence that he shares his name with the possibly unreliable narrator of The Little Stranger), that her boss, his daughter and his new wife are exactly this. And dysfunctionality, in this world, seems to be connected to loss. Felicity has lost her mother. Linklater, in confessional mood, has told Dee and Felicity that he also lost his mother at the age of four. Dee herself has a vivid memory of her mother helping her through the birth of her curly-haired daughter—but she tells us immediately that her mother was dead long before this. And meanwhile, Mariah never sees her own mother, is sarcastic about the way she hates the fact that she is already a grandmother, and that she has a daughter, Mariah, who will soon be 40. If we’ve been told anything about Nick Law’s childhood, I can’t remember it just now….
Everybody is having a bad time, and nobody talks about it. Nick Law pretends everything is fine at the college, with Mariah, and with Felicity. In fact, if we are to believe Dee, she knows the truth about the Senior Common Room’s round robin letter to him, has listened to Mariah’s desperately sad confessions about how much of an outsider she is—to say nothing of the miseries of what Dee, when she fast-forwards to the present day, won’t actually confirm is post-natal depression—and that if Nick chooses to believe the head of Felicity’s school about her progress, it’s only because he hasn’t stood outside the playground spying on what really happens. Dee has, hoping nobody will notice.
Dee, meanwhile, has developed strategies for covering up what sounds like PTSD, those moments when she is back in the middle of the trauma of having and losing her own daughter. (Unsurprisingly, we still don’t know how she ‘lost’ her, and I’m not going to try and guess.) Dee covers up, Felicity says literally nothing—and, now I think about it, all Linklater is comfortable talking about is safe historical-spooky stuff. He did his doctorate at the same time as Nick Law, and makes a sort of joke about Nick having the life he could have had himself if he’d been a different person. He even has a German word for it—he finds safety in words in the way Dee finds safety in numbers. (He tells Dee what Magpie Lane’s original name was, a coarsely sexual name you can find in Wikipedia. We can speculate about why that might be his only reference, ever, to sex.)
So where has Felicity gone? I almost don’t care, not because Lucy Atkins hasn’t made it an urgent enough question, but because there are so many other interesting things going on. Nick is blaming everybody except himself, Mariah has been depressed about everything since shortly after their arrival and is convinced Felicity hates her, Dee is a weird compendium of secrets and omissions…. And how many of them are utterly convinced of their own rightness, when all around are wrong? Dee might seem to be the worst culprit, but Nick is at least as bad, the epitome of male certainty based on a lifetime of success. Yet this is the man who can’t even choose a decent cat to keep Felicity company as he and Mariah go on a week-long jaunt to Hong Kong they forget to mention until a week or two before. He’s made the college pay for Mariah’s ticket, a triumph to add to all the others. And another blow to his standing in the eyes of the old guard. The cat, meanwhile, is an aggressively neurotic stray. How we laughed.
Anything else? Certainly, some of it to do with the history of Oxford we can read on almost every page. And the continual presence of death, in the form of Linklater’s tours and Felicity’s bone collection. And the ghosts, of course. Felicity is convinced her mother is somehow present in the priest-hole—an obsession her father is convinced is made worse by Dee’s encouragement of her morbid habits. And is it Linklater who describes, along with all the other ghosts he mentions in his tours, the tales of poltergeist activity in what is now Felicity’s room? No doubt—and it goes with the mysterious family who hid there a century ago, a woman fleeing an abusive husband (he thinks) and her two sons. Whatever happened to them?
Chapters 33-48, and Epilogue
Everything’s a red herring, so that’s all right—I said before that I didn’t really care where Felicity had gone, so it doesn’t matter that the answer doesn’t come as a big surprise. As we approach the end, with not enough pages left for a really big turnaround, we know that if Felicity hasn’t simply run away and slipped into the river—which would obviously be far too much of a let-down—it has to be Dee, working with an accomplice. And guess who the accomplice is? OK, no surprise there either, but it’s satisfying enough that the little family Dee couldn’t help imagining really does come about. It can’t last—as the cracks in their plan start to appear, Dee’s fantasy of their all catching a ferry to Norway to start a new life is only her desperation coming out—but the end of their idyll is in some future we don’t have to think about. For the duration of the epilogue it feels like poetic justice. Nasty, narcissistic Nick Law doesn’t always have it his own way.
This being the book it is, sold as ‘the most chilling and twisty read of 2020,’ it comes as no surprise that the epilogue has its own twist. It starts off in Dee’s old family home, a mill in rural Scotland—yes, really—with the three of them living on her substantial savings from years of spending almost nothing. Linklater is here, having driven Felicity from Oxford following a cataclysm in his own life—tell you later—and providing Dee with the perfect alibi as she mooches around London on a trip Law has paid for. She keeps reminding the police to look at any CCTV footage they like, because they won’t see Felicity with her, no siree Bob. Or whatever Faraday’s first name might be. But…
…nice cop Faraday and his (female) nasty cop sidekick Khan arrive. Dee knows she’s within her rights to send them packing—no, she’s not going to put the kettle on for Faraday to come in and have a cup of tea—and she is able to cover up the presence of the other two in a pre-planned concealment operation. But they tell her they’ll be back, suggesting they have enough new evidence for them to come with a warrant. A local historian going by the name of Linklater, they tell her, has disappeared too, and two people matching his description and hers were seen by a witness who has just come forward, in Magpie Lane, on the night of… etc.
So it isn’t really about the big reveal. It’s Dee, not the clever detective, who tells us how it was all done. And—and this has really only just occurred to me—because she’s the one telling it, we don’t know how much she’s still covering up. She has told us all about that cataclysm in Linklater’s life, how, having been able to live in college accommodation for over 20 years because he’s fallen off the radar, he’s suddenly been discovered and the locks have been changed. She’s also told us that she was the one who mentioned him to Nick, although in her version it was a series of unlucky connections that made him realise that Linklater, the man doing the house history research, is really the man he remembers by his real name from their DPhil years, a loser he mocks as ‘nerdy Birdy.’ An unlucky coincidence? Or is it really Dee making sure Linklater isn’t able to go back on the plan they concoct in a wine-fuelled evening only a few days before her long-planned London trip?
It doesn’t really matter, but it adds to the disorientating ambiguity of everything in Dee’s narrative. We never, ever know where we are with her, because… because, in a book like this, it’s her job to make sure that we don’t. She, Dee Whatever-her-name-is (I don’t think we’re ever told), narrator, is the mouthpiece of Lucy Atkins, author, who wants to make this as entertaining as she can. And since the essence of a thriller like this for the reader to have to keep guessing where the truth lies, it’s in the author’s interest to make the narrative very slippery, even if that forces her narrator to tell it as no living person ever would. She isn’t a living person, obviously, but if the author is clever enough to make us forget that, and have her narrator omit things and lay false trails in a way that just seems like her (the narrator’s) own obsessiveness, it works.
(I could go on about unreliable narrators, and I have, elsewhere. The two archetypes for me are Lucy Snowe in Charlotte Bronte’s Villette and John Dowell in Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier. When writing about Villette, I wrote this: ‘In The Good Soldier we have to swallow not only a series of twists that are Byzantine in their intricacy, but also a narrator forced into narrative corners by the imperatives of the author’s objectives. In both novels the author wants to undermine our certainties: whenever we think we know what’s going on, he/she gives us another little narrative coup to remind us – what? – that we don’t know anything.’ Sound familiar?)
So, does it work as an entertainment? I would say yes—and I would say that it works in ways that go further than the demands of the genre. I’ve already mentioned how Lucy Atkins is interested in other things. Loss and a sense of feeling like an outsider. Self-certainty, especially (but not only) as shown by successful men with a disregard for anybody else. The effect on mental health of other people’s lack of care or downright selfishness. The power relationships in this novel always favour the man—one of Dee’s ways of dealing with it is to tell herself how useless they are at what she’s good at, and she must like Linklater because he isn’t a part of any power game. We find out that the father of Dee’s child was a much older visiting academic in Edinburgh who (if we’re to believe her) forced her to have sex when she was sixteen. Then he was able to take the one-year-old, quite legally in Scotland at the time, out of the country to America, where she now lives as an adult. Dee suspects, probably correctly, that her daughter doesn’t want the contact she has offered because he’s turned her against her ‘unstable’ mother.
Accusations of instability and worse are rife, and there’s evidence of some quite difficult mental health issues. We know about what I called Dee’s PTSD-like symptoms when she has flashbacks to being close to her daughter as a baby. These, her real belief that Nick and Mariah neglect Felicity, and strong hints that she is to be sacked very soon, give her enough of a motive for doing what she does. She’s doing the girl a favour, in her view, even if she and Linklater have to pretend to her that she’ll be going back to Oxford soon enough. It’s a satisfying aspect of the denouement, in fact, that it all looks a little bit bonkers. Dee describes the family-like situation as though it’s all perfectly normal, but it isn’t. And if houses carry a symbolic weight in this novel, which they definitely do, then an ancient mill with a stream running through the main room must mean something.
So, how much of it are we to believe? By the end, if we leave aside all those genre-driven red herrings she helps to perpetrate, and her determination to omit important information—like the planning of the abduction—it seems that most of what Dee is telling us is quite close to the truth. Nick Law really is an arrogant, status- and career-obsessed man with no time for anybody else. Mariah’s attempt to build a successful career of her own really is, pun intended, paper-thin—and her post-natal near-breakdown is very real. The inward-looking, tradition-obsessed college, and its ultra-conservative service staff, really are as excluding to outsiders—i.e. all the main characters—as she presents them. Even Dee’s cynical view of Oxford’s self-mythologising—she loves to puncture those apocryphal little tales and the tourist-oriented insistence on the picturesque—are things we can definitely sympathise with.
And yes, Linklater really does seem like a nice chap. If Dee wasn’t such a mess, there might be a future for them both. But she is, and it’s hard to imagine a trial for abduction will do her a lot of good. She might have persuaded herself, Linklater and the reader that she really was taking the girl away from an intolerable situation, but we aren’t the jury. Which is something else that’s satisfying about this ending, to go with Lucy Atkins’s total control of her chosen narrative form. It feels as though the perpetrator of the crime was in the right, but in what passes for the real world in this novel, that’s going to get her nowhere. Winners win, losers lose. Yep.