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Magpie: how to succeed at thriller writing

Elizabeth Day’s psychological thriller is both creepy and comforting

Magpie is the fifth novel by Elizabeth Day, best known for her podcast, How to Fail. Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty
Author: Elizabeth Day
ISBN-13: 978-0008374945
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Guideline Price: £14.99

For the superstitious, the magpie is considered an ill omen – if solitary, it is a bird synonymous with sorrow; it also has a reputation for stealing shiny things. As such, the title of Elizabeth Day’s fifth novel frames the reader’s expectations of what will be revealed as this atmospheric psychological thriller unfolds.

Day is perhaps best known as the host of the chart-topping podcast How to Fail and the bestselling memoir it inspired. The frank interviews she conducts distil the knowledge and insights that come with the inevitable human failings of life.

Celebrating failure has struck a chord with the zeitgeist. Her work shatters the glossy veneer of other people’s lives and enables honest conversations about disappointment, failure and, most importantly of all, what happens next. She has also discussed publicly her own experiences of trying to conceive a baby and undergoing fertility treatment, in order to challenge the language, stigma and taboos surrounding these issues that often position the women themselves as failures.

The wealth of wisdom she has accumulated through her non-fiction work manifests powerfully in Magpie, which is constructed upon thoughtful, clear-sighted examinations of the difficult themes of infertility and mental health. At the heart of it is a triangle of three adults navigating a complex relationship.


It begins with Marisa narrating; she has just moved in with her new boyfriend Jake, and they are trying for a baby. For financial reasons they take in a lodger, Kate, but Marisa is deeply unsettled by her. It is clear that all is not as it seems.

To say anything further regarding the plot would be to undermine the exquisite reading experience – the less you know before you start, the better. Suffice to say, it has all of the misdirection, suspense and intrigue of the best psychological thrillers.

If Jake (and his father) retain a somewhat shadowy presence on the page, Day’s women are electric. Fully realised, complicated and completely distinct from each other, Kate and Marisa come alive on the page and make for compulsive reading. If the trope of Jake’s territorial mother-in-law feels a little tired, the woman herself is written with acerbic wit and does ultimately earn her keep as a pivotal player in these high-stake games of parenthood and family dynamics.

There is a stylish tone to Day’s prose that ensures a luxurious reading experience, even as the pace intensifies. With a great eye for detail, the world of the book is textured, sensuous and captured with flair. Occasionally this strength does ultimately weaken the work when the detailing of physical description becomes overloaded.

What the characters of a novel notice at any given moment can include us in their perspective, revealing their frame of mind in immersive ways. Diversions from an authentic emotional state, however, to focus on interior decoration or clothing, can pull the reader out of the narrative and feel like an intrusion of the authorial voice. Nonetheless, Day’s thriller is undoubtedly elevated by the wordy pictures that she paints.

Throughout Magpie, the author expertly unspools the tension to achieve an atmosphere of suspense that compels the engaging plot forward. To achieve this while tackling weighty topics of fertility, mental health and motherhood with nuance, grace and empathy is a remarkable achievement.

Day, who spent her early years in Northern Ireland, is also excellent at writing about privilege and class and her astute observations of the English class system are brilliantly drawn. The novel offers a compassionate but honest account of jealousy and its consequences – this is an author unafraid to lean into the darker corners of the human mind and shine a light.

In a world that feels frightening for many, Day has written a psychological thriller that offers all the entertainment of an exciting suspense novel, while also managing to create an overarching feeling of optimism for the human spirit and raising important, thought-provoking questions along the way.

At once both creepy and comforting, Magpie proves to be provocative yet life-affirming. And it offers at least two magpies worth of joy.

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic