I have enjoyed Lucy Atkins other novels and it seems they get better and better. I love the character of Dee and became drawn in by her straight away. There is a sense that she doesn’t really belong anywhere but she is curiously at ease with who she is. Some thing of an outsider in Oxford, she doesn’t belong to any of the colleges but is one of those invisible people who provides services to those who do belong. Dee is a nanny and makes a very disturbing observation about the academics who use her services – when desperate, people will let a near stranger look after their child. The new master and his wife, Nick and Mariah, hire her after a chance meeting on a bridge early one morning and one hasty conversation. They do not ask for references or do a police check. If they had, they would have found that Dee has a criminal record.
It is no coincidence that Mariah restores old wallpaper. She is adept at papering over cracks. She tells Dee that Felicity is selectively mute, that she met Nick after his wife died from a longstanding illness and that they both did everything to get Felicity talking again. There us a stifling atmosphere in the lodgings and the author carefully links the house with the people in it – with both there is a long history being erased and retold through renovation or retelling. Is the start of this couple’s relationship as simple as they portray? Mariah’s chirpy and wholesome exterior might, just like the new decor, might hint at a darker, more murky interior world. The house’s history is slowly being unearthed by Linklater, a social historian hired by Nick. It shows how out of step these two characters might really be. Nick wants to disturb and discover the chequered past of their new home, while Mariah is whitewashing it. Linklater discovers family dramas, haunted occupants and a possible answer for the ‘priest’s hole’ in Felicity bedroom that may be even more malign than the poisonous Victorian wallpaper.
Felicity isn’t just mute. She is a very distressed child, seemingly obedient but full of simmering anger and confusion. She roams the house while still asleep, makes patterns on the floor with her collection of bones and artefacts, and seems to be drawn by the ‘priest’s hole’ in the middle of the night. She slowly starts to speak to Dee, but also makes a surprising connection to Linklater when the three of them start to take tea together after school. They are a group of misfits, finding each other and developing trust. There seems to be a distinction made between those who appear genuinely themselves, however odd they may seem, and those who are putting on an act; a natural family forming where there is a forced family unit at home. It has to be significant that the one person Felicity never speaks to at all is Mariah. Dee becomes more than a passing childcare worker, she is deeply involved with this little girl. I like the way the author foreshadows this relationship as Dee sees Felicity for the first time and notices her curls, just like those of another child she once knew. Is this another nanny’s role or is she giving hints of a past we don’t know about? If Dee once had a family what happened to them? We have to question Dee’s role as narrator and whether she is not as candid with us as she seems.
I kept waiting for a terrible secret to emerge and for Dee’s reaction to being exposed. The tension is ratcheted up when we learn that Felicity has gone missing and the narrative passes back and forth between the present day and what has happened in these character’s pasts. I enjoyed the ending, although I raced there a little too quickly. I was desperately hoping for a happy ending for both Felicity and Dee. Watching Mariah and Nick’s ‘perfect’ life completely implode was oddly satisfying. With her perfectly calm exterior ravaged by the birth of her first child Mariah struggles to function normally and seems haunted by Felicity’s mother Ana. She starts to spend days in pyjamas, coping with a colicky baby and this break in her usually ordered world threatens to break her.
I was left feeling that Nick and Mariah didn’t deserve Felicity, but was that what the narrator wanted me to feel? I was left wondering whether I’d been manipulated all along. As the police wondered and questioned, the reader does the same. Is Felicity as disturbed as Dee would have us believe? Or was Nick right in his assessment that it was Dee’s presence, her inability to sleep, her encouragement in discovering something supernatural and the constant buckets left in the kitchen to bleach animal skulls that are to blame? Finally, I liked the way maths was used as a theme in their interactions; Dee’s proof is an example of how something seemingly factual and definite can still be manipulated. A maths problem can have two correct answers. It simply has to be worked out differently. Which version do we trust? This is an intelligent, psychological, thriller that keeps you guessing long after reading, Lucy Atkins has done it again! A great read.