In upending male-dominated versions of history and myths, Dawson joins a welcome literary trend. Madeline Miller’s Circe, focusing on a marginal figure from the Odyssey, and Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls, which makes Briseis the protagonist, are longlisted for the Women’s prize. Meanwhile, in non-fiction Hallie Rubenhold has shifted the spotlight away from Jack the Ripper to examine the lives of his victims in The Five.. The narrative’s progress towards the terrifying evening in the dark basement kitchen has the ineluctable pull of tragic myth. We know what must come, but this knowledge never detracts from the memorable beauty and intelligence of the novel. By focusing on the victim, Dawson allows us to completely rethink the original story in a way that honours Sandra Rivett’s short life.
In Jill Dawson’s chilling, claustrophobic interpretation, Rivett is cast as a young woman named Mandy River, in a novel that captures the contrasts of mid-1970s London — its vividness and its sinister murk — through the eyes of a startled semi-ingénue who has come up from her home in the Fens of eastern England... Sandra Rivett’s history has long been dismantled and dismissed by a press in thrall to the flashy Lucan lifestyle. Dawson’s insistence that she take prominence with this novel goes some way to achieving a balance, even as the aristocratic carelessness and coldness at the heart of the book prevails.
Dawson has the admirable aim of refocusing the Lucan case on the victim, and to a large extent she succeeds. The nanny’s-eye view of these posh, emotionally stunted people is entirely effective. Familiar though it is, the story becomes both grim and gripping, while the murder itself is genuinely shocking. The Rosemary sections of the narrative, however, seem semi-detached from the rest of the novel. They add, as Rosemary’s hold on reality slips away, a rather laboured Gothic touch... All in all, this beautifully written novel achieves its aim: it gives the victim back her voice.
If the mission of the book was to give weight to Mandy’s experience rather than Lord Morven’s then it is somewhat at the expense of the story. After Mandy’s murder, there is a disproportionately long section dealing with Rosemary’s feelings about the case and the death of her friend. The great pleasure of the book up until this point had been the evenness of the pacing, the enjoyment of being lost in the good story well told.
Rosemary comes to the realisation that when something goes wrong women are always blamed, and all men are capable of cruelty. Had she arrived at these revelations a little quicker, they would have been all the more powerful.
A braver, more skilful rendering of Lucan would have succeeded in seducing us, if just for a moment, into forgetting the warning signs of his psychopathy. We’d snap out of that moment, feeling revolted that we’d been taken in, but we would have learnt something about how everyone around him let those signs pass by. As it is, the novel leaves us with the same impression it gave 200 pages earlier: “He’s a maniac, duh!”
Dawson writes some colourful and gripping set pieces, most notably a “holiday” the two nannies take with their charges at the earl’s ancestral home in Scotland – menace shrouds it, like mist over the loch – and she deploys Rosemary cleverly as a second, more distant pair of eyes on her friend’s dysfunctional employer. But while it’s impossible to tire of Mandy, or of Neville, the West Indian man with whom she falls in love, Rosemary, who has been born with various “gifts” (her granny believed her to be a witch), is a different matter.
The latest from the immeasurably talented Jill Dawson—probably best known for The Crime Writer, both a fascinating portrait of Patricia Highsmith and a riveting tale of murder and madness, and the Orange Prize-shortlisted Fred and Edie—draws on the infamous Lord Lucan murder case of 1974.
It’s a crime that has seeped into our collective memory: the nanny who was bludgeoned to death in the basement of the Lucan family home in Mayfair. Lady Lucan was also attacked, but survived, and identified her husband as her assailant. Lord Lucan was never seen again.