Reviewed by Judith Wilson
The Night Visitor is Lucy Atkins’ third novel, and as I’d devoured the first two, I was keen to read this. The proof copy arrived emblazoned with emerald dung beetles and with the tantalizing phrase: ‘One secret could ruin her life …’ It’s a great premise for a novel. I’d found Atkins’ previous books The Missing One and The Other Child very gripping, so The Night Visitor promised equal suspense.
We meet the protagonist, Professor Olivia Sweetman, in the Prologue. As an historian, with academic accolades and TV success to her name – and with her new biography, Annabel, based on a 19th century female surgeon’s true-life confession, already ascending the bestseller lists – Olivia has everything. She’s at her book launch, but despite the assembled adoring crowd, there’s trouble brewing. Her husband clearly has a guilty secret, Olivia has spotted a malevolent stalker, and as she delivers her speech, she’s perched vertiginously high on a balcony at The Hunterian Museum, Royal Society of Surgeons. One senses her perfect life is about to explode.
Satisfyingly, the book kicks off with a rewind to two months previously. We shuttle between Olivia’s close third person narrative, and Vivian’s first person account. Vivian, sixty years old, a spinster, housekeeper to Lady Burley (descendant of Annabel Burley, a Victorian surgeon on whom Olivia has been writing a book), is the second main character; she’s been assisting Olivia with her research. At the start, the differences between these two women, in both character and circumstance, appear vast. Sophisticated Olivia is married to David, a writer, and has three children, a house in London and another in the country, and professional success. Vivian is obsessive, drab and neurotic. With the book on Annabel finished, Vivian is devastated – ‘I long for the words ‘Dear Vivian …’ she says – yet Olivia is swiftly withdrawing from their professional relationship. Early on, we have the nightmarish sense this will prove unwise. Vivian knows a secret that Olivia wants to conceal, and thus begins the teasing out of an uneasy balance of power between the two women.
The Night Visitor features atmospheric locations: after the glamour of London, we’re plunged into Vivian’s world. She lives in a suitably ghostly old house, Ileford Manor, East Sussex, where she broods alone. Soon after, events shift to the August heat of a villa in the South of France. Olivia has departed to holiday with two families, hoping to forget Vivian. At first, her main problems appear emotional: there’s an unexplained issue with David and one of her friends is acting suspiciously. Atkins is excellent at portraying the intricacies of family life and the tense niggles between married couples, plus the dynamics between female friends. But then Vivian pitches up in the South of France. That’s when things really begin to unravel …
Atkins has obviously done careful research, and the book is satisfyingly laced through with references to beetles (Olivia’s academic father was a leading authority), and also to Olivia’s own research into Victorian women. Her professional interest is why – when she discovers the ‘memoir’ of Lady Annabel Burley – she’s so keen to write the biography. The emphasis on the struggle of early women scientists (Lady Annabel was a pioneering female surgeon) feels spot on for a 21st century novel. Even so, occasionally I felt the text was unnecessarily swamped by too many facts and intricacies about the Burley backstory, which slowed the narrative.
Mostly, I sympathized with Olivia’s character and the trials of her busy life: she has the book to launch, an au pair to run, and an absent husband, travelling constantly. Yet I did question when, knowing her teenage son won’t speak to his father, and is getting into trouble, she seemed more interested in her own career. And despite her two friends, Chloe and Emma, being present early on, they are less visible later. The upside? This keeps the focus relentlessly on the developing, increasingly fractured relationship between Olivia and Vivian.
It’s a tightly plotted novel, with plenty of suspense and a superbly shocking ending. If I have a minor criticism, the book slightly lacks the dynamism of Atkins’ previous two; the pace picks up in the second half. And, given her reputation as an academic historian, Olivia appears to take too many facts, regarding Lady Annabel Burley, at face value. I looked forward more to Vivian’s narrative; an apparently ordinary woman who eats her meals on time, has no truck with vanity, and adores Bertie, her beloved dog. Yet she becomes increasingly obsessive, and ultimately deliciously evil.
Would I recommend The Night Visitor? Of course; it has all the ingredients for a great psychological thriller. There are twists aplenty, betrayal and revenge, the juxtaposition of Olivia and Vivian proves fascinating, and there’s a host of secrets – family and otherwise – to slowly uncover. Just ensure you’re sitting down when that ending strikes …
Find Judith Wilson on twitter @judithwrites
Lucy Atkins, The Night Visitor (Quercus, 2017). 978-1786482044, 368pp., hardback.
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