28-year-old Marisa may not yet have reached thirty, but she’s keen to settle down and start a family. When Jake, a decade her senior, walks into her life, she feels that everything is falling into place as it should. They’ve only known each other a few months before they’ve moved in together, and she quickly falls pregnant. They’re both delighted.
We don’t learn much about Jake – or Marisa, for that matter. Of course, our suspicions (this is a domestic noir, after all) immediately fall on Jake, a man who ‘belongs to that cadre of Englishmen who have never had to worry about learning the rules because they are the ones who make them.’ He’s cagey about his family, his corporate job seems to be going south, and he doesn’t go in for PDA. But Marisa puts this to one side – she loves him, after all, and she’s having his baby.
‘Marisa felt, with unexpected acuteness, the fragility of everything, the ease with which it could all be taken away from her.’
So when Jake suggests that they get a lodger to help pay the rent, Marisa agrees. Kate is a lithe, attractive and friendly 30-something who works in the film industry. But her behaviour starts to concern Marisa – it feels like she’s making herself a little too comfortable; cooking Jake his favourite mac ‘n cheese, using the master bathroom, leaving her belongings in their communal spaces.
And then – at a perfectly timed half-way through mark – we start to realise that things are not, of course, as they seem. Not at all. And in fact, we might have fallen prey to a rather unreliable narrator.
This was a slightly uneven reading experience for me; it began a little flat, as I struggled to connect to Marisa and Jake and felt frustrated at the direction I felt the narrative was heading in – an unwitting young woman falling victim. But once the perspective shifts in the second half – that’s when things changed; the story becoming richer, the character insights stronger and the overall narrative energy really picking up.
Part of the plot centres around infertility, and Elizabeth Day (who has been very open about her own fertility journey) addresses this in a candid, empathetic way that shines a light on an experience that is a lot more common than most people realise. The novel does important work with telling this story in the context of a domestic noir, and it helps to flesh out the characters into three-dimensional humans.
‘She had always thought that if did the right thing, worked hard, got good results and a stable job, and tried generally to be a decent person, that life would progress in the way she anticipated.’
The ending, though… I don’t know. Perhaps a little too pat. I won’t say more than that; it’s nevertheless an absorbing read – I devoured it in two sittings – and having been a fan of Elizabeth Day’s How To Fail podcast for a while now, I’m glad to have read some of her fiction.
CW: psychosis, miscarriage, sexual assault
Magpie will be published in September 2021. Thanks to the publisher via Netgalley for the advanced copy. All quoted material subject to change.