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Magpie: Psychological thriller hinges on the tension between a woman and her lodger


Magpie by Elizabeth Day

Magpie by Elizabeth Day

Magpie by Elizabeth Day

Marisa and Jake have been together for a little over three months when he invites her to move in with him. We meet Marisa as she is viewing the new house, alone — Jake, we’re told, sees the matter of where they live as “her domain”. Marisa knows she should feel indignant about a man deeming all things domestic to be the woman’s sphere, but secretly, she actually likes it.

Soon after, Marisa moves into the house while Jake is at work — “she didn’t mind doing it by herself” — and is content working from home on her own all day on her personalised children’s storybook business, Telling Tales. But it’s not long until Jake reveals his work isn’t going as well as Marisa had been led to believe, and proposes taking in a lodger to bring in some extra cash. Marisa reluctantly agrees, although the timing could be better: the two have just started trying for a baby, and the arrival of a third party — a female one at that — upsets the equation.

Elizabeth Day’s latest novel hinges on the tension between these two women, presented from both of their perspectives. The lodger, Kate, is eight years older than Marisa, and her physical opposite: brunette, athletic and stylishly dressed, compared to Marisa’s blond hair, curvy figure and paint-splattered clothes.

Kate is unselfconscious about making herself at home in the house, brushing her teeth in the master bathroom rather than using the basin upstairs, and carelessly chucking her trainers by the front door. And while the stress of trying to get pregnant builds for Marisa, Jake and Kate are spending more and more time together, playing loud music when she tries to work and cosying up on the couch when they think she’s gone to bed.

Early on, we learned about Marisa’s fractured family history and the break-up of her parents’ marriage — she is drawn to Jake and the accelerated nature of their relationship because he promises stability and security. But things suddenly seem a lot less solid once Kate arrives. What is happening under her own roof?

To say any more would spoil Day’s clever plot, but as well as being a compelling literary thriller, Magpie offers an intimate, unflinching portrait of infertility, laying bare the pain and heartache of struggling to conceive. Day has spoken about her own experiences with IVF and miscarriage, and her account of fertility issues in Magpie feels authentic, presenting the grim reality of the long, difficult and repetitive IVF process, and the emotional trauma and physical toll of losing a baby.

The novel captures the seemingly endless cycle of hope and heartbreak that attends each new round of treatments, as well as the accompanying feelings of shame and failure when a procedure doesn’t work.

Day’s character takes each unsuccessful attempt personally: “She had always thought that if she 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. Motherhood and children were part of that. It was just what happened, wasn’t it?”

The women of Day’s novel are for the most part brilliantly formed — Jake’s overbearing mother-in-law Annabelle is a particularly delicious villain, “one of the only people who could use the word ‘dear’ as a weapon” — but as Magpie progresses, she tends to favour plot over character. Jake remains a one-dimensional figure, perhaps by design to stir suspense around his motives. The storyline about Marisa’s family is abandoned, while a return to her viewpoint later in the novel would have helped ground the conclusion.

The midway change in perspective also changes the pace, as the story slows down before reaching a subdued climax and an ending that feels too tidy and too easy, following the twisty, gasp-worthy narrative that preceded it.

Yet after 300 pages that veer between tense thriller, psychological drama and moments of almost Gothic horror, such optimism may be welcome.

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Fiction: Magpie by Elizabeth Day

Fourth Estate, 336 pages, hardcover, €15.99; e-book £7.99

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