Reviewed by Susan Osborne, 2 April 2020
I’m a fan of Jill Dawson’s writing. Her last novel, The Crime Writer, was a wonderful piece of literary fan fiction, a perverse love letter to Patricia Highsmith. However, when I read that The Language of Birds was based on the notorious Lord Lucan affair I wasn’t at all sure that I’d read it. I’m old enough to have seen far too much in the way of tawdry media coverage of that but I’m pleased to say that far from being a rehash of the infamous murder replete with speculation as to Lucan’s fate, Dawson’s novel reimagines the story from the nanny’s perspective.
Mandy and Rosy meet at a psychiatric hospital: Mandy is recovering from a breakdown but Rosy suffers occasional psychotic episodes. Each is the other’s first real friend. Rosy goes on to pursue her studies in child development, becoming a Norland nanny. When she hears of a vacancy with the Morverns, she recommends Mandy. Katharine Morvern is desperate for help with her quiet, eager-to-please son, James, and Pammie, the baby Mandy hears squalling when Katharine opens her front door. Katharine is in the midst of an acrimonious divorce from her husband who is given to frequent silent phone calls and posting private detectives outside the house. The apparently charming, urbane Dickie has weaponised the children against his wife in a bitter custody battle. Katharine unburdens herself to Mandy, sharing her gorgeous clothes and the grubby secrets of her marriage with both Mandy and Rosy on their Thursday evenings off. While Mandy voices her concerns about Dickie’s behaviour, the violent streak Katherine has talked of and his unpredictability, Rosy is seduced by the attention he pays her, unheeding of his manipulation. One night, breaking their usual routine, it’s Mandy rather than Katherine who goes downstairs to make a pot of tea.
Touchingly, Dawson has dedicated her novel to Sandra Rivett, the nanny who spent a scant ten weeks in the Lucan household. Readers of a certain age will remember the incessant, prurient coverage of her murder, and of Lucan’s subsequent disappearance. Dawson turns this coverage on its head, telling her story from Mandy’s perspective interwoven with Rosy’s occasional reflections. Both are complex and convincing characters – Rosy a little immature and caught up in the glamour of the circles she finds herself attached to while Mandy’s complicated past is slowly revealed. Through these two, Dawson reveals a society still deferring to and obsessed by its upper echelons who farm out the care of their children, seemingly incapable of looking after them themselves. Violence against women is a constant undercurrent, culminating in Mandy’s murder and the attack on Katherine. By telling the story from the nanny’s perspective, Dawson’s careful, compassionate and compelling novel honours her memory, tipping the balance away from a media obsessed with Lucan which reduced Sandra Rivett to ‘the lovely young nanny’ rather than a vibrant young woman with a life of her own. For me, it’s one of Dawson’s best.
From Susan Osborne A Life in Books (www.alifeinbooks.co.uk) Never, ever leave home without a book
Sceptre: London 2020 9781473654556 272 pages PaperbackBUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)