‘The Language of Birds’ by Jill Dawson

Fiction – Kindle edition; Sceptre; 272 pages; 2019.

Giving voice to the victim of a horrendous crime is the central purpose of Jill Dawson’s excellent novel The Language of Birds.

The story is based on the events of the real-life Lord Lucan murder mystery in which British peer  (and professional gambler) Richard John Bingham disappeared on 8 November 1974, never to be seen again. He was suspected of murdering the nanny of his children and severely injuring his estranged wife in their Belgravia home.

Dawson’s fictionalised account reveals what happens from the murdered nanny’s perspective. It’s an effective — and compelling — literary device, putting a human face on a woman long forgotten by a culture obsessed with what actually happened to Lord Lucan, who was declared officially dead in 2016.

But this is NOT a crime novel.

A new life in London

In The Language of Birds, the nanny is given a different name — Amanda ‘Mandy’ River — but her impoverished background, including having two secret children out of wedlock in rural Norfolk, remain pretty much the same. She’s a vivacious, warm, friendly and attractive 26-year-old keen to escape the claustrophobic control of her mother, who has raised Mandy’s son, Peter, as her own.

She moves to London, encouraged by her friend Rosemary who is working there as a trained nanny, and within 24 hours is in the employ of Lady Katharine Morven, looking after infant Pamela and 10-year-old James. But the household is in disarray. Lady Morven spends most of her time in bed, Pammie never stops crying and James is watchful and sickly looking.

There’s a bitter custody battle being played out, and Lord Dickie Morven, who no longer lives with the family, is having the property and his estranged wife’s movements being watched by a series of private detectives.

Both Morvens befriend Mandy, who isn’t quite sure whose side she should take. Lady Morven claims her husband is violent; Lord Morven says his wife is unstable and an unfit mother.

Two narrative threads

The story follows Mandy’s new life in London — she falls in love with a black man she meets in the local pub, hangs out with Rosemary, gets to know the debonair Dickie — and contrasts this with her previous troubled life, which included a stint in a psychiatric hospital. This, it turns out, is where she met Rosemary, who was also a patient because she could hear voices and believed she could see the future and commune with birds (hence the title of the book).

It is structured around two narrative threads: Mandy’s story told in the third person and Rosemary’s told in the first person. This means that when Mandy meets her unfortunate end, Rosemary can take up the baton, leading us through the inquest that follows and ensuring Mandy’s life is not forgotten in the (media) obsession surrounding the missing earl.

I really loved this novel. Mandy is wonderfully realised. She’s a brilliant creation, a woman who wants to control her own destiny (and sexuality) despite society putting rules and barriers in the way. And both Morvens, posh, aristocratic and deeply troubled, are also well drawn — and from what I know of the real Lord Lucan mystery rooted in reality.

Perhaps what makes The Language of Birds really work is the tension and pacing. It reads like a thriller but has all the nuance of a domestic novel about flawed people making poor decisions that have long-lasting and unforeseen repercussions.

The ending is especially powerful. It achieves Dawson’s aim because it presents a fresh perspective on a terrible crime: it gives the nanny her rightful place in history, not as a murder statistic but as a young woman, full of dreams and a zest for life, who had her time on earth cut so cruelly short. This was my first Jill Dawson novel; it won’t be my last.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘Aiding and Abetting’ by Murial Spark: Suspenseful black comedy in which a Paris-based psychiatrist takes on two new patients, both of whom claim to be Lord Lucan. But which one is the real one?

‘The Butterfly Man’ by Heather Rose: Lord Lucan reinvents himself as a Scotsman now living a quiet life in rural Tasmania. But when he is diagnosed with a brain tumour his illness makes it increasingly difficult to keep his murderous past a secret.

‘The Dead Eight’ by Carlo Gébler: This brilliantly compelling novel is told from the perspective of a prostitute, long forgotten by history, who was murdered in rural Ireland in 1940. It is based on the true story of Harry Gleeson who was framed for the woman’s murder and hanged at Mountjoy prison for the crime.

12 thoughts on “‘The Language of Birds’ by Jill Dawson

    • If you know the background to the crime I think it makes the story resonate that much more. I basically read it in two sittings because even though I knew how it was going to end I was intrigued how Dawson was going to write about it. She does it really well; it’s not sensationalised in the least.

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  1. I’m so glad you loved this, Kim. I’m a Dawson fan but the mention of Lucan in the blurb initially put me off having been long disgusted by the UK tabloids’ obsession with him but she redresses that balance beautifully. If you’re keen to read more Dawson I’d recommend The Crime Reader, an homage to Dawson’s favourite writer Patricia Highsmith.

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    • As you say, I think she does a great job of redressing the balance. And she does it without sensationalising the crime. She barely even mentions the gruesomeness of the scene and do preserves the nanny’s dignity.

      Thanks for the tip about The Crime Reader; I recall hearing her talk about this at an event I attended in Waterstone’s and it did sound fascinating.

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  2. It’s amazing that the Lucan affair continues to hold such fascination. With all the millions of words written about it, it can’t be easy to come up with a fresh perspective

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