Monday, 23 November 2020

Guest review by Gill Lewis: DIARY OF A YOUNG NATURALIST by Dara McAnulty


"McAnulty has a fierce love of the natural world which shines brightly, and I, for one, am glad of its light."

Gill Lewis is a children's author, vet, wildlife enthusiast and tree house dweller, whose many books about animals and the natural world include Sky Dancer, Moon Bear and Run Wild. Three new books will be published in 2021: Willow Wildthing and the Shooting Star, illustrated by Rebecca Bagley (OUP), is the third book in the Willow Wildthing series about children finding wild space in the city; Swan Song (Barrington Stoke) is a story about teenage depression and the healing power of nature; and A Street Dog Named Pup (David Fickling Books, with a cover by Levi Pinfold) is about the incredible bond between human and dog, and one dog’s journey to find his boy.

See more on Gill's website.

I’ve been mulling for a while about writing this review. It’s hard to say what hasn’t already been said about this astonishing book and its equally astonishing author.

Quite deservedly, Diary of a Young Naturalist is the winner of the Wainwright Prize 2020, winner of Books are my Bag Readers Award for Non-Fiction, shortlisted for the Irish Post Award 2020 and finalist of Baillie Gifford Award 2020.

The book chronicles a year of McAnulty’s life between his 14th and 15th birthdays, a time between childhood and adulthood. We journey with him from the west of Northern Ireland to the east, from one spring to the next. He allows many of us a deeper understanding of autism, smashing stereotypes, as he shares the love and support from his family – mother, father, younger brother and sister. All but his father is autistic. Diary of a Young Naturalist is a profound account of a deep connection and love of the natural world and a desire to communicate with others to ensure protection of this planet we all call home.

I’ve wanted to read this book for a long time but needed to find time and space to immerse myself. I’m glad I waited, because McAnulty’s words are ones to savour. He is truly a gifted writer. Poetic and lyrical, he is able to convey the deepest thoughts and emotions through words, yet without resorting to prolific superfluous prose.

McAnulty’s descriptions are powerful. They reawaken our senses to the world around us, a world we all too often shut out, wrapped up in our busy lives. He offers us sensory landscapes from seabird cries in the far distance and the way cloud shadows move across golden fields to then focus in self-absorption in the small details of watching a woodlouse crawl on our fingertip. Literature and folklore are woven throughout minutely observed science. We tread carefully amongst the bluebells for fear of the wrath of faeries and yet also learn about the slow growth of bluebells and their existence since the ice age. Science and art. Head and heart. Our human connection to the natural world.

Many people travel the world to see wildlife, but McAnulty shows us the world in a bucket. He describes a newly made bucket-pond as a cauldron of magic, and yet with growing distance from childhood has the self-awareness to realise that such childish joy is perceived as wrong, bad almost; “My mind skips, because, well, I’m too old for my body to be seen skipping into the house.” And yet, McAnulty’s words fizz and pop and sparkle with raw wonder, and one can’t help feeling that utter joy, a reawakening of senses long buried in childhood, a joy that should be a part of all our lives, however old we are.

Whilst the natural world offers great solace, delight and curiosity, the human world is one that is a hard path for McAnulty to navigate. The joy and wonder at the natural world are matched by the depths of anger and sorrow at its destruction at the hand of man. And through the course of the book we see that anger and passion become a powerful engine to communicate with others. McAnulty talks of the frustration of not being listened to, and being bullied at schools. Then we see the growing empowerment of having his voice heard. There is maturity beyond his years to recognise that some people pay lip service to him or want to use him for their own agendas. He acknowledges that he must be his own agent, and yet feels powerful and powerless at the same time. His sheer determination has traction. Where teachers once shrugged their shoulders at him and pupils laughed, a new school sees engaged teachers and pupils who seek change too.

I came away changed by reading McAnulty’s book – reawakened to childhood wonder, a renewed conscious desire to use all my senses to perceive the world around me, and to hold fast to the truth that we can all make a difference and change hearts and minds.

This is an important book for all to read. Deeply empathetic to all living things including his fellow humans, McAnulty has a fierce love of the natural world which shines brightly, and I, for one, am glad of its light. 

Diary of a Young Naturalist
is published by Little Toller. Cover illustration and internal maps by Barry Falls   

See also: Fingers in the Sparkle Jar by Chris Packham, reviewed by Linda Newbery

Monday, 16 November 2020

Guest review by Anne Cassidy: MONOGAMY by Sue Miller


" ... raises the issue of how we perceive the past. Does a recently-discovered fact about a partner of many years throw a shadow over the entire relationship?"

Anne Cassidy
writes crime fiction for teenagers. She has published over forty novels for young adults. She writes dark crime fiction and is best known for Looking for JJ which was shortlisted for the Carnegie medal. Moth Girls was published by Hot Key in 2016 and concerns the disappearance of two twelve year old girls. Her latest novel No Virgin describes the aftermath of a rape.

Monogamy appears, at first, to be a story about an older couple who have been together for a long time and are about to experience the heartache of infidelity. The story is told from two points of view; the wife, Annie and her husband, Graham. Both have been married before and have come together as experienced rather than damaged people. They seem like opposites; she is small and reserved, he is big and enjoys being the centre of attention. Their marriage has been long and even though they are very different, they have found happiness with each other. Graham, though, has recently strayed and is regretful. An unexpected and devastating event takes place which changes everything.

It’s a story that raises the issue of how we perceive the past. Does a recently-discovered fact about a partner of many years throw a shadow over the entire relationship? Annie struggles to accept what she has found out.

Sue Miller writes about relationships beautifully. Her characters have different, sometimes contradictory sides; Graham is attracted to a newly divorced woman but his love for Annie still consumes him. He acts on this attraction and hates himself for it. Annie is faithful finding what she needs in the marriage but her professional life has been unfulfilling.

Perception of the past is nicely highlighted when Annie meets a man she once had a romantic dalliance with thirty years before. She remembers the brief encounter intensely. He mistakes her for a different woman, though. This misremembered tryst symbolises the problems with perception of the past. Annie has to decide whether she can live with her new knowledge and forgive her husband of so many years.

I love Sue Miller’s books because they are full of flawed people who should make the right choices but don’t always. It’s not an uplifting book but it’s satisfying because it seems so truthful. 

Monogamy is published by Bloomsbury.    

See also Anne Cassidy's review of Elizabeth is Missing, by Emma Healey


Monogamy is published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 9 November 2020

Guest review by Graeme Fife: BRIGHT DAY by J B Priestley


"Simply, his work rings true, a powerful example of how honesty emerges through the challenges of emotional intelligence."

Graeme Fife has written many plays, stories, features and talks for radio, stage plays and articles for newspapers and magazines, and is now a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent. He's the author of a string of books - children's stories, biography and works of history. Great Cycling Climbs, which brings together his books on the French Alps, is published by Thames and Hudson. He says, 'I urge everyone to buy from their independent bookshop, if they're lucky enough - as I am - to have one nearby. If not, by any means possible to counter the sprawl of the online consumer graball.'

Knowing Priestley through his plays and his experiments with shifts of time I now, belatedly, delight in his novels, discovering another side to a writer whose company I enjoy, whose work is rich in insight, tender and lyrical, muscular and unflinching, by turns. Priestley writes his own life into evocation of times he has known, lived through, learned from, without any blatant intrusion of autobiography. Simply, his work rings true, a powerful example of how honesty emerges through the challenges of emotional intelligence. Bright Day explores Priestley’s fascination with how the flux of time plays on our consciousness, by splitting the narrative between two eras of the central character’s life.

Set in part after the Second World War, the story begins in the lead-up to the First World War. Hope and confidence in those early years, a jaded sense of lost purpose in the aftermath of another shattering conflict, years later.

Gregory Dawson is staying in a hotel on the Cornish coast, working on a screenplay. Two guests arrive – people he knew as a young man in Bruddersford, thin disguise for Priestley’s native Bradford:

"My Bradford, where I was born and where I lived the most exciting and perhaps the most important years of my life is not really a town at all, it is a vast series of pictures in time and space…an autobiographical library…a hundred thousand succeeding states of mind, it is my childhood and

Priestley captures the promise, and confusions, of youth, without sentimentality, tracing the progress of callow feelings, of unformed thought, in the gradual maturing of Dawson as a young man through his association with the Alingtons, a family of what seem to him brilliant individuals: sophisticated, stylish, wealthy. He’s drawn to their manifest poise, their sheer ease in a social milieu utterly strange to him, quite other. It’s part of his emergence into young manhood soon to be cast into the horror of the trenches. The shaping experience of war emerges only in casual allusion, but the imprint of that shocking reality resurfaces, almost subliminally, in the slow loss of any essential belief in the worth of what he is doing, labouring over a film script. It feels hollow. Hollywood’s charm has evanesced and, though this does not turn him into a cynic, it helps to impel him into revaluation of what those early years had exposed him to and a psychological blow whose implications he’s never explored or come to terms with. In disillusion, he finds elucidation.

The producer of the film he is writing spells out what underpins that disillusion: "... the power of movies…is frightening…What we are doing is filling a horrible vacuum, where once there were gods and goddesses and then afterwards saints and guardian angels. We are mythologists. We are the only licensed necromancers and wizards, shamans and medicine men. It is not the conscious mind, which we merely tickle but the deep unconscious that is our territory.’ 

And the deep unconscious is what Dawson learns to grapple with, painfully compelled but with frank courage. An old friendship, a renewed acquaintance, the triggers of memory, all push him to a realisation that he’s reached a natural terminus – both in his work and his life – where the call to change in both becomes irresistible.

From the tentative beginnings of his first years of work - in the cloth trade - his journey has taken him far geographically and intellectually, but it’s the need to reconsider, to re-examine, that lies at the heart of this beguiling story. From the New Year toast that father Alington proposes "to Nineteen Fourteen and all that it will bring us – peace, prosperity and friendship" to the recollection, years later, of how "an ageless secret self flitted through bewildering telescoped scenes that ran the chalk trenches of Picardy into Picadilly Circus and jammed Brigg Terrace and Canal Street into Hollywood and Beverley Hills…and cried 'Lost, lost, lost', searched and searched and could never find what was to be found".

But it is, finally, to be found and found through love. A woman Dawson meets on his completion of the script and decision to quit – despite lucrative offers of more work, work which he knows will only leave him feeling emptier – speaks of the death of her husband and repeats those words lost, lost, lost. But determined to confront the loss, she says "and the worst thing to do is turn your face away and hold yourself rigid and not let life go flowing through you. Do you see what I mean, Gregory?"

The Bright Day is published by Great Northern Books

Other First World War books:

In Parenthesis by David Jones, reviewed by Graeme Fife

Now All Roads Lead to France by Matthew Hollis, reviewed by Celia Rees

My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You by Louisa Young, reviewed by Linda Newbery

Monday, 2 November 2020

Guest review by Jon Appleton: THE BISCUIT FACTORY GIRLS by Elsie Mason

 "As the nights draw in, there will be plenty of readers seeking total immersion and escapism in saga-length novels, especially those with the promise of further volumes to come."

Jon Appleton is a freelance writer and editor based in London.

As the nights draw in, there will be plenty of readers seeking total immersion and escapism in saga-length novels, especially those with the promise of further volumes to come. I can heartily recommend Elsie Mason’s The Biscuit Factory Girls.

The cosy cover image is essential to the genre and it’s true that for the first part of the book, the comforting scent of baking biscuits permeates the air which the employees of Wight’s Biscuit Factory in the north-east live and breathe. The latest recruit is newlywed Irene Farley, who joins her sisters-in-law Beryl and Megan working to make the biscuits that will offer a little comfort to the men on the front line of the Second World War which rages all around them.

But the story gets a lot darker, and fast. (This is an incredibly pacey novel.) Irene – a former land girl from Norfolk – has known handsome airman Tom Farley for just three months before she leaves her parents and sisters to join him, his three brothers, sisters-in-law. This memorable family has been led by the indomitable Ma Ada since the early death of her good-for-nothing husband.

Throughout the novel, Irene is forced to question the wisdom of her actions. First the prospect that she doesn’t belong amongst the Farleys, their extended family and neighbours, all living cheek by jowl in the Sixteen Streets – ‘where everyone’s watching each other’s comings and goings and there’s gossip about everyone’ – near the shipyards of Tyneside. Second, the mounting fear that her presence is somehow jinxing the safety and happiness of the Farley clan.

Of course, for Irene there also looms the threat of losing her new husband in the war, a threat which compounds the anxiety of her unexpected pregnancy.

As the weeks pass, with work and the occasional treat punctuating the constant threat of the nightly bombing raids, Irene settles into life and forms important, unconventional friendships – with beautiful Bella, daughter of the Italian ice-cream parlour owner and Arthur, rule-abiding usher by day and someone utterly different by night. But most demanding of all is her relationship with her sister-in-law, Megan, who resents Irene from the start. As the story develops, she unravels the stories of Megan and her husband Bob and can understand better why their marriage has become so corrosive. A great pleasure of the book is unfurling such stories within the story.

There are moments of scandal, of elation, of tension, of triumph. There’s even a thread of vivid queer glamour bursting through the leaden winter and the rubble which adds a welcome vein of colour. There’s a great deal of love, too, waiting to ripen and as we race to the end we eagerly wonder what lies in store for these characters in Elsie Mason’s next book.

The Biscuit Factory Girls is published by Orion. 

Monday, 26 October 2020

Guest review by Sophia Bennett: THE DAUGHTER OF TIME by Josephine Tey

"Gradually, with slow-burning precision, a new villain emerges ... a wonderful retelling of the story. A true murder plot with a twist."

S J Bennett wrote several award-winning books for teenagers as Sophia Bennett before turning to adult crime fiction. Her new series, Her Majesty the Queen Investigates, launches this week with The Windsor Knot. 
She lives in London, where she teaches and podcasts about writing ( and has been a royal watcher for years. The Queen, to the best of her knowledge, does not secretly solve crimes.

This is the tale of a reader, stuck in one place during a difficult time, rediscovering a historical villain and learning to see him and his times in a new light. It has a twist: the fascinating story, the great discovery, turn out to have been hiding in plain sight all time. 

It was early in lockdown that I finally decided to get to grips with audiobooks. My husband hoovers them up and gets through far more books than I do. I’m too fussy. The voice of the narrator has to match the one I have in my head. They mustn’t stumble over complicated grammar, or be too flat. The story itself must grip me more than a paper-based book needs to do. After all, I can’t skim-read through the dull bits. I had tried and failed to enjoy a slew of audiobooks, and then finally, just when I needed it most, I discovered The Daughter of Time.

I’d always been dimly aware of it as a crime novel. I love the title, and I’m a fan of Josephine Tey, though I know Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy L Sayers’s works better. Ruth Ware recommended Tey’s Bratt Farrar to me last year, and that quickly rose high in my list of favourite crime reads for its wonderful descriptions of horses and its clever murder plot hidden behind a more obvious one of deception, in which our hero is the deceiver.

I didn’t know what The Daughter of Time was about, and was surprised that its subject turned out to be the wicked, murderous Richard III. Of all the historical murders to pick, hadn’t the murky tale of the princes in the tower rather been done? I’d last seen Mark Rylance play Richard in the West End – by accident. I’d actually wanted to see him and Stephen Fry cross-dressing in Twelfth Night, which was on in repertory with Richard III, but accidentally booked tickets for the wrong one. It was very good, but I know the story too well. He’s a baddie, I get it.

I wasn’t surprised when Inspector Alan Grant in the book begins his investigation into Richard with a certain reluctance. He is stuck in a hospital bed with little to entertain himself and a mild interest in a picture of the wicked king – which seems to be that of a kind, intelligent man who has suffered much himself. It seems to be the best the policeman can do to take his mind off his problems. The story gradually draws the reader in, just as Richard’s history slowly exerts its increasing fascination on Grant.

Tey’s masterful storytelling is apparent in the texture of historical record that she gradually weaves into the novel. With little access to literature, Grant is first forced to remind himself of the story of the poisoning of the princes in the tower using simplistic children’s history books. Everyone he encounters from nurses to visitors, has a strong, instinctive dislike of the man. We all know the story, and these histories confirm it. Richard did away with the vulnerable young men in the tower to strengthen his claim to the throne. He used his brief time in power to sew chaos and dissent until the brave Henry Tudor arrived to save the day, ushering in the modern age with his new dynasty, sweeping away all that was old and rotten with the Plantagenets.

But gradually, alongside Alan Grant, we learn, fact by fact, that everything we know is wrong. Tey beautifully illustrates, time and time again, how history is written by the victors. How these victors are often the venal acoyltes of cruel men, eager to whitewash their part in a lawless rise to power. Slowly, slowly, the reader, like Grant, is encouraged to wonder who really benefitted from the young princes’ deaths. It wasn’t Richard. Nor were they known to have died while he was alive. And during that time, by the way, he achieved a lot of good.

Gradually, with slow-burning precision, a new villain emerges. Grant gains access to better historical sources. He pieces together a revisionist history that exonerates the dastardly Plantagenets, casts them as the tragic victims of history, and sheds and entirely new light on the Tudors. Ta dah! It’s a wonderful retelling of the story. A true murder plot with a twist.

And then the second twist comes. The exculpation of Richard is nothing new: historians did it ages ago. But the propaganda of centuries, reinforced of course by Shakespeare, refuses to submit to our new knowledge. Truth may be the daughter of time, but she has great difficulty asserting herself.

I love the way that crime novels can take the rigour enforced by their genre and use them to play with rules, bend and break them, and at the same time explore a huge variety of themes concerning our life today while keeping the reader entertained. What do we need now if not the ability to question the narrative we are being fed by the current victors of history? In The Windsor Knot, one of my chief delights is the ability to cast a fresh light on politics and feminism, raising questions about our preconceptions as my sleuth – the Queen – advances towards the solution to the mystery.

My next read was the truly enormous third book in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy: The Mirror and the Light (indirectly referencing Mark Rylance again). Paper this time, and so heavy I worried about straining a muscle as I held it up in bed each night. Not my favourite of the three, as I felt the thrust of the story was overwhelmed by the detail of the research this time. But also, I kept wanting to shout at those Tudors and their courtiers. They had such a sense of entitlement! Such magnanimity towards the remaining Plantagenets and the dangerous ‘pretender’. All unmerited! My reading of Tey’s book had given me a new perpective. The novel had crept under my skin the way the best books do. I was a convert, just like Alan Grant. ‘More people should read this book’! I thought. Its implications affect our understanding of the monarchy to this day. It deserves a much wider audience.

And then I was kindly asked by Adèle Geras to write this post recommending a favourite book. I thought I would give you all the gift of this wonderful, under-appreciated crime novel. I looked it up on Wikipedia to remind myself of one of the details and discovered this:

“In 1990 it was voted number one in The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time list compiled by the British Crime Writers' Association.[1] In 1995 it was voted number four in The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time list compiled by the Mystery Writers of America.”

My great discovery had already been discovered. You probably know better than I do how brilliant it is. I was, in fact, late to the party by several decades. Perhaps I should have known, but somehow it had passed me by.

I’m glad I wasn’t aware of its reception during lockdown, though. The discovery was mine, like Grant’s of Richard’s story. I had no expectations, and so could be won over completely by its gentle charm. I’m sad that I don’t get the chance to raise its profile. I’m not sure where you go from number one in the top 100 crime novels of all time. If you haven’t read it, though, perhaps the CWA, the MWA and I can jointly persuade you to give it a try. 

The Daughter of Time is published by Arrow.

Monday, 19 October 2020

PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke, reviewed by Adèle Geras


"I’ve never in my life read a story which so defies reviewing. Summing up the plot doesn’t work. Comparing Clarke to other writers might, but only if you’ve read the other writers."

Adèle Geras has written books for readers of all ages. Coming from Michael Joseph in February next year is her novel Dangerous Women, published under her pseudonym, Hope Adams.
Twitter: @adelegeras

I have been not reading fantasy for nearly 70 years. At school, my friend Philippa was a passionate fan of The Lord of the Rings and all things Tolkien. Every term, she would urge me, “Just try it again, Delly.” I would try and fail. My eyelids would droop after three lines and I’d always put the book aside before I turned the first page. I describe myself as ‘allergic to Tolkien.’ Nothing to do with his books or their merit, but rather to do with me: I’m not adapted to reading them. (I ought to add that I have no such problem with ghost stories or fairy tales or horror stories.)

But I have been eschewing fantasy and science fiction. I didn’t like Dune by Frank Herbert in spite of a boyfriend urging it on me, telling me it was life-changing. I read His Dark Materials because (cunningly!) it began in an Oxford college (which I do like reading about) and then I got sucked in by the daemons, but that’s an exception and there were large tracts of the three volumes which I must admit I skipped over.

One of my most spectacular failures was a very fat book called Jonathan Strange and Dr Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This was a huge hit when it appeared and I couldn’t read it. I couldn’t even watch the TV version…. found the whole thing extremely boring and I have a very low threshold for boredom. If I’m not gripped at once, I give up and I’ve not finished more books than I care to number. If it’s a crime novel, I might turn to the last page to see who did it, but mostly I put the book aside and forget about it.

How then to explain the attraction I felt to Piranesi? It’s all Twitter’s fault. Alex Preston wrote about the book in a way that intrigued me. The reviews were uniformly enthusiastic. Also, I read an article from the New Yorker which explained why Susanna Clarke had taken fifteen years to write a follow- up to Jonathan Strange and Dr Norrell. It was because she was ill from a variant of ME and simply could not. Then I watched her in a virtual event, speaking about Piranesi and I liked her so much that I downloaded it. Of course, there was also the artist Piranesi whose drawings of fantastical prisons I know and admire. I wondered what the connection was between the book and the artist.

Before I sat down to write this, I was reading the newspaper. Piranesi is still number 10 on the Sunday Times bestsellers list. Each book listed there has one sentence describing it. Piranesi’s says: "The resident of a surreal palace is disturbed by news of a new inhabitant."  When I read this, I laughed out loud. Nothing in that sentence is untrue but it’s a world away from the book, and what it’s about and what sort of experience the reader has when she embarks on it.

What I’m going to add won’t add much more enlightenment. I’ve never in my life read a story which so defies reviewing. Summing up the plot doesn’t work. Comparing Clarke to other writers might, but only if you’ve read the other writers. Borges was mentioned in reviews, and by the author herself but alas, I’ve never read his work. I can tell you that the use of capital letters for many nouns is mesmerising and gives the prose an air of undeniable authority and strangeness.

I’m still haunted by Piranesi more than a fortnight after I finished reading it. The ‘surreal palace’ mentioned above is mind-blowing. Hall after Hall, filled with thousands of Statues, which are the whole universe. There are seas running through the Halls and Vestibules and our hero, whose first person account this is, has learned to read the tides and has set out a geography of the place to help him find his way around it. Others have lived there. There are Bones which he tends and respects and these show he’s not the only person who’s ever lived in this place. Once a week, he has a meeting with The Other. Then other things happen and an explication of sorts is provided. This doesn’t lessen the otherworldly feeling you’re left with when you finish the book.

It’s the look of the place, and the feel of the place and the simplicity and poetry of Piranesi’s own narrative voice that I loved so much and which is still resonating in my head. Someone, somewhere is, I’m sure, thinking about how to make a movie of it and I hope very much that this will be an animation; a drawn universe because real flesh and blood humans would reduce magic to the mundane tropes of normal fantasy.

It’s a very short book. Please read it before anyone takes it out of individual heads and puts it up on a screen. To tempt you, I shall quote from it. I am going to open my Kindle and pick a passage at random. It’s the kind of book where you can do that.

“Preparations for the Flood


With the exception of the Concealed Person, all the Dead stand in the Path of the Flood Waters. On Sunday, I began the work of carrying them to safety.

I took a blanket and transferred all the Biscuit-box Man’s bones into it – all except for the ones inside the biscuit box. I tied up the blanket with seaweed twine, making it into a sort of sack, and I carried it to the Second Vestibule and up the Staircase to the Upper Halls.”

I’m saying it again. Please read it.

Piranesi is published by Bloomsbury.

Monday, 12 October 2020

THE LANGUAGE OF BIRDS by Jill Dawson, reviewed by Linda Newbery

 "The tensions between these young women’s strength and resourcefulness, the various ways in which they're exploited and their efforts to escape the tugs and burdens of the past make this an absorbing read."

Photograph by Chris Normandale
Linda Newbery edits Writers Review. She is currently working on her second novel for adults, following Quarter Past Two on a Wednesday Afternoon (retitled Missing Rose for the paperback edition) which was a Radio 2 Book Club Choice.

Having enjoyed the inventiveness of Jill Dawson's The Crime Writer, based on the life and work of Patricia Highsmith, I was eager to read this, a fictionalised version of the events leading to the disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1974 after the murder of his children's nanny, Sandra Rivett. In an Afterword, Jill Dawson quotes the victim’s aunt: "This entire inquest has been devoted to the life of Lord Lucan, and the life of poor Sandra has been almost ignored." The Language of Birds gives a richly-imagined life to the young woman here called Mandy Rivers. 

By chance, this is the second novel I've read this year that involves a nanny taken on at short notice and with scant investigation into her qualifications by wealthy employers who are all too ready to hand over their children to the care of a stranger (the other was Magpie Lane, by Lucy Atkins). Mandy gets her job at the instigation of her friend Rosemary, whose first-person narrative alternates with Mandy's, in third-person. A Norland-trained nanny already working in London, Rosemary covers up for Mandy's lack of qualifications and experience. Early on, we know that the two young women met at a psychiatric hospital in the East Anglian fenland, and that Rosemary was sent there after believing that pigeons had told her to kill herself. It takes longer for us to discover why Mandy was there, but the friendship and mutual support of the pair is crucial to the story.

Adaptable and kind, Mandy learns the etiquette of her new role (in a private London square, she's asked by another nanny, "Is your mummy a titled mummy? ... This is the bench reserved for titled mummies' nannies") and the strange routines of the Knightsbridge household. Lady Morven, Katharine, is harrowed by a custody battle for her children but shows little interest in them, remaining closeted in her bedroom; ‘Dickie’ (Lord Morven) keeps the house under surveillance, claiming his children on alternate weekends. Finding empathy with the troubled Katharine and hearing of threats and beatings, Mandy fears what he might do. It’s no spoiler to say that the tragic events of that November night are well foreshadowed, seeming inevitable.

To their employers and others of their class, the young women's nanny status renders them all but invisible, Rosemary often ensuring this by wearing uniform. Nonetheless, having escaped from a repressive mother, Mandy revels in her new London life and the feeling of independence, limited though her independence actually is. Jill Dawson writes very well about sex, conveying Mandy’s amazement at her physical and emotional openness with Caribbean boyfriend Neville. Having always been made to feel inadequate, she experiences this as a revelation - all the more poignant because the reader knows it will be short-lived.

The birds of the title seem to symbolise freedom and flight (and perhaps the girls themselves, in 70s idiom). We first meet Mandy newly-arrived in London and watching gulls wheeling over the Thames; to Rosemary, birds are portentous, to be feared, provoking her strange visions.

Although Rosemary attends a women’s consciousness-raising group, she's the one who's readily swayed by Dickie’s urbane charm into finding excuses for him. Too late she realises that “people make the mistakes I did. They prefer another story. The story where the woman is too sexy, too crazy, or having an affair.” The tensions between these young women’s strength and resourcefulness, the various ways in which they're exploited and their efforts to escape the tugs and burdens of the past make this an absorbing read. And I loved the 70s detail of fashion, food, music and attitudes, never overdone.

The Language of Birds is published by Sceptre.

See also Jill Dawson's The Crime Writer, reviewed by Patricia Elliott.