Book Review - Magpie by Elizabeth Day

Book Review | Magpie by Elizabeth Day

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.

Read if you enjoyed: The Push by Ashley Audrain, The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Dinner Guest B P Walter

Book Review | The Dinner Guest by B. P. Walter

Rachel, working a dead-end job at a garden centre, is mindlessly scrolling Instagram. And then she sees something which makes her sit up. She quits her job, ends her lease, and moves to London – intent on finding the family she saw in the photo.

And as luck would have it, she does. The Allerton-Joneses are browsing a bookshop in their native Kensington, and Rachel engineers the perfect accidental meeting. From then on, she steadily ingratiates herself into their inner circle. But such a manoeuvre is not without its challenges. Whilst Matthew and Charlie Allerton-Jones are from the upper-echelons of British society, the very definition of being born with a silver spoon, Rachel’s meagre savings stretch to renting on a scary housing estate in Pimlico. Their fine dining and housekeeper-cooked meals contrast sharply with her discount Sainsbury’s pizzas. But Rachel knows she has to persevere with her plan, whatever the cost.

‘It’s a mirage. A charade. Stacks of money in concrete form, that’s all. Rows of houses filled with people who haven’t a clue about the horrors of this world.’

This domestic noir opens with a brutal murder, I should mention. When we first meet our protagonists, one of them is dead – and another holding a knife. But it will take the unspooling over the course of the novel to find out the how, and the why, behind this attack.

The pacing is steady, and I was engrossed in the plot and the cast of complex characters. The way that B P Walter deftly managed the twists and turns in the plot was one of the novel’s greatest strengths, divulging and withholding information at exactly the right pace to keep the reader engaged. I found the exploration of the lives of the mega-wealthy and what goes on behind the façade of respectability to be one of the most interesting things about this novel. It gives you a window into how such people live (Charlie name drops dinner with a past Prime Minister, garden parties with a verifiable Lord and Lady), and to just what extent that contrasts with the life Rachel leads. And – importantly – how money and connections enable the rich to act with impunity.

‘Back then, I’m not sure I ever felt guilty, knowing where a portion of our income came from. I’m not sure. You see, when you’re brought up being told certain things are the way of the world, it becomes very hard to question them when you’ve just accepted them for so long. And I’m not sure it bothers me much now.’

A very solid addition to the domestic noir genre, and highly recommended for anyone looking for an engrossing thriller with a bit more substance. My only gripe would be the way this is marketed – it’s not really appropriate to name drop Donna Tartt or to try to market this towards fans of a literary thriller. The title and tagline would also suggest that the dinner is a central point of this thriller – when that’s very much not the case, and the key plot points of the novel span the course of several decades. I hope that readers can go in with the right expectations and enjoy this gripping read for what it is.  

Read if you enjoyed: The Lying Game by Ruth Ware, Our House by Louise Candlish

With thanks to HarperCollins for the advanced copy. The Dinner Guest will be published on 27th May 2021.

Book Review | When I Was Ten by Fiona Cummins

Catherine Allen has spent the best part of twenty years pretending the formative decade of her childhood didn’t exist. But when her sister goes on live TV, talking about how her parents – Dr and Mrs Carter – were brutality murdered with a pair of scissors when they were children, the life she has built for herself starts to rip at the seams.

“Her life – the ordinary, dull, precious life she had fought so hard to build – tilted sideways.”

In the eye of a media storm, the story garners intense public interest. Having gripped the nation when the crime first occurred, in the late 90s, it re-ignites questions about children who kill, and what possible pathway there can be to their redemption.

Brinley Booth, who grew up with the sisters in the same rural village, is now a reporter who is assigned to the case. In the cutthroat world of news journalism, there’s only one thing that matters – getting the story. But revisiting her past isn’t easy for Brinley, either, and a return to her childhood home dredges up parts of the past she’d rather leave forgotten.

“Now I’m back in the place that has haunted the hollows of my life, and the ghosts of my childhood walk alongside me, murmuring in my ear.”

The narrative also travels back in time to the 90s, to the seemingly idyllic Carter family home. Behind the facade – the doting parents, the father the village GP, Fiona Cummins exposes a believable and horrifying family reality, where emotional abuse and manipulation are the norm. The writing in these parts of the novel was strongest, with suspenseful and emotive scenes that built up the characters effectively, especially that of the youngest sister, Sara.

The dive into the world of news journalism made up my favourite parts of the novel, an insight into what it takes to carve out your career in that field. Cummins explores predatory journalistic practices and putting your life on the line if it means getting that front-page byline – and how so often these sensationalist crimes end up being trial-by-media.

Ultimately, there were things that didn’t work for me – the subplot of the Tory Justice Secretary and his unceremonious downfall, some on-the-nose plot moments and metaphors (in the midst of otherwise very accomplished writing), and – without giving away any spoilers – the motivation for the later killings, which seemed to be included for shock factor rather than plausibility in the context of the story. However, this was still a gripping novel that explored an interesting premise, that largely sustained the suspense throughout.

I voluntarily reviewed a copy from the publisher via Netgalley. When I was Ten will be published by Pan Macmillan in August 2020.

Book Review | The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell

Libby Jones has waited her whole life to find out who she is. Adopted as a newborn baby, she was found by police in her cot in a Chelsea mansion, while three dead bodies lay on the kitchen floor downstairs. Now 25, she receives a letter that will change everything. She finds out that she is heir to said Chelsea mansion, worth millions.

Desperate to find out more about her early life, she reaches out to the journalist who originally covered the case more than two decades ago. But in digging up the past, they begin to uncover the sinister truth about what really happened inside the house.

“God, you and me both. Two years of my life, that article took from me, two obsessed, insane, fucked-up years of my life. Destroyed my marriage and I still didn’t get the answers I was looking for. Nowhere near.”

Alongside Libby’s present-day narrative, we have the voice of Lucy, a single mother of two in the south of France, eking out a living playing the fiddle, and Henry, who lived in the house as a child in the 80s and 90s. What began as a privileged and trouble-free childhood soon turned into something a lot more sinister with the arrival of the Thomsen family and their enigmatic – soon to turn terrifying – pater familias, David.

The strongest narrative thread was Henry’s, his slow unravelling of the series of events that led to the headline-grabbing deaths in 1994. Over time, the house is slowly taken over to become a place where the inhabitants are imprisoned in deeply disturbing circumstances.

What enables Jewell to maintain the suspense is that we don’t know how these perspectives are related until the story unfolds. Libby, the baby in the cot, becomes the catalyst for the past to rear its head – and the former inhabitants of the house also come back into the picture, themselves desperate for answers.

“It was a fork in the road, literally. Looking back on it there were so many other ways to have got through the trauma of it all, but with all the people I loved most in the world facing away from me I chose the worst possible option.”

This isn’t a novel for readers expecting a multitude of twists and turns – rather, it is a slow burn of a psychological suspense that functions as a character study of dysfunctional and complex families. There were avenues that I would have liked to have seen explored in more detail; like Libby’s character fleshed out, and most of all more time spent examining the slow descent of the Chelsea mansion into the prison it became.

Overall, I enjoyed Jewell’s writing style, and the overall trajectory of the novel (including the ambiguous ending), but I felt that she could have fleshed out some of the narratives and resisted some of the tangental anecdotes, particularly with regards to Lucy’s storyline, in order to give the reader a richer understanding of the main narrative and the events that unfolded under the control of their malevolent leader.

Book Review | Snap by Belinda Bauer

Jack, Joy and Merry wait anxiously in their mother’s car, stopped on the hard shoulder, in August 1998. The summer heat is stifling, and desperate for fresh air, 11-year old Jack gets out with his younger sisters, carrying baby Merry. The glaring sun beats down on them and cars rush past, nobody stopping, as they navigate their way through the bracken and waste running parallel to the motorway. They walk for what feels like forever. They can’t see their (heavily pregnant) mother anywhere, and over the coming weeks, they come to know they never will again.

Three years later, Jack is trying to hold it together in the family home. While the outside remains presentable – they mow the lawn, take out the rubbish, paint the front door – the tumultuous inside tells a very different story. Newspapers tower from floor to ceiling, to the extent that the siblings have had to create a rabbit-warren of tunnels to navigate from room to room. The fridge is usually empty, and Joy wears the same faded pink nighty. Merry plays with her tortoise and reads vampire books. Their father left one day to get milk, a year ago, and never came home.

“She remembered earthquake survivors saying that the ground under their feet had turned to liquid and rolled in great waves. That was how she felt. As if she’d built something on solid ground that had suddenly turned to ocean.”

Nearby, heavily pregnant Catherine senses an intruder in her house – with a note left on her bedside table. I could have killed you. Panicked, she decides not to call the police, and not tell her husband. After all, she’s high on pregnancy hormones and is probably exaggerating the threat to herself.

In the same town, Detectives Marvel and Reynolds find themselves in an unlikely team, attempting to solve a string of burglaries that have left the local police force stumped. Chalk and cheese, Marvel is a gruff, old-school and irritable DCI who is disgruntled to find himself on such a mundane case. Reynolds is uptight, by-the-book and disparaging of worldly evils such as watching TV and eating MacDonald’s. Their dynamic brings moments of levity that serve to counteract the darkness.

“Or because she’s an unattractive middle-aged woman,” said Reynolds.
“Alright, Germaine Greer,” snapped Marvel.

Snap tells an unsettling, sad story about the devastating impact of loss – but it is peppered throughout with light humour, with bravery, and with characters who feel very much real. Despite being written in the third-person, Bauer gets in the head of each of the characters through a clever use of free indirect speech that collapses the distance between them and the reader. Rather than relying on graphic descriptions or shock tactics, Snap winds its way deftly through an exploration of grief, perseverance and humanity.

Book Review | All the Beautiful Lies by Peter Swanson

Harry Ackerson, the only child of Bill Ackerson, rushes home from college one fateful afternoon to the small coastal town in Maine where he grew up – to find himself an orphan. His father has plunged to his death on the path of his favourite cliffside walk, leaving Harry with no existing close family – save for his stepmother, Alice, Bill’s much younger wife.

“Harry thought of that conversation now, thought of how the deaths of both of his parents had erased a whole portion of his own life that existed solely as their memories. He was half gone, already, more than half gone. “

It isn’t long before detectives are knocking at the door of the Grey Lady, Alice and Bill’s home. They have reason to believe a third party may have been involved in Bill’s death, having found evidence of blunt trauma to the head. Bill, a quiet, unassuming book collector, isn’t the type to have a catalogue of enemies, so the local police aren’t quite sure where to start.

It is alongside this narrative that we have flashbacks into the ‘then’ of the past, insights into Alice’s small-town childhood and her relationship with her unstable, alcoholic mother. It is then that we start to see her dark side, the way she tangles herself up in acts of immorality whilst seemingly distancing herself, mentally, from any wrongdoing.

It is Alice – her past and present – who is at the heart of this twisted and disturbing tale. But even then, we hardly know her. There is a certain depth lacking in this offering from Peter Swanson, who so thoroughly impressed me with The Kind Worth Killing. There are also parts of this book – the predatory sexual practices of adults towards teenagers – that are deeply disturbing, but it is a theme that becomes so commonplace that it is the twisted thread that binds together the narratives.

While intensely readable, something was missing for me in All the Beautiful Lies. I am a fan of the slow-burner and I don’t need to be constantly contending with twists on every page to enjoy a thriller, but this lacked the substance I was hoping for. Nevertheless, the ending – a dark and twisted denouement – was a fitting, satisfying conclusion.

 

Book Review | I Know Where She Is by S. B. Caves

All it takes is a split second with your eye off of the ball. That moment is all it takes for your whole life to be ripped apart at the seams. This is the kind of hell Francine is all too familiar with – knowing that had she been more vigilant in that moment, her young daughter Autumn would still be with her.

It’s been ten years since Autumn vanished without a trace, and Francine is a wreck. She’s clinging on to semblances of normality, managing to hold down a job alongside an alcohol addiction, but has been driven to the point of madness over the past decade, engaging in increasingly desperate attempts to locate her missing daughter.

So when an anonymous letter turns up through her door, containing nothing but the words ‘I know where she is’, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that this is a cruel joke played on a desperate woman, or that in her fragile state of mind, the whole thing is an illusion. She pleads with her ex – Autumn’s father – to believe her, but his derision is palpable. So she goes at it alone.

Then a girl shows up out the blue – covered in cuts, severely malnourished and caked in dirt. She claims that she helped take Autumn all those years ago – and knows where she is…

It is at this stage that Francine falls down a rabbit-hole of horrors. This novel needs to come with a very big trigger warning for graphic depiction of torture, rape, sexual violence. The kinds of unimaginable trauma that Francine hears about is the very real peril that a thriller like this needs to keep the plot moving swiftly on – and there’s no denying that this is a gripping, intense read.

It is also an uncomfortable read, and there were times I thought about stopping. But the pace ramps up a notch every time, making it difficult to put down. It’s wildly implausible on several counts – but the frenzied, half-mad schemes of Francine illustrate well her total desperation, and the lengths she will go to to save her daughter.

“The hard work was already done, the difficult choices made. There was no going back now, she realised. It was all or nothing. Find Autumn or die trying.”

I received a copy of this book via Netgalley. It will be published on 14th August 2017.