The Language of Birds review: Lord Lucan blueprint informs narrative
Jill Dawson’s novel explores the often overlooked plight of a murdered nanny
On the evening of November 7th, 1974, Lord Lucan bludgeoned his family’s nanny to death and attacked Lady Lucan and then disappeared.
The Language of Birds
Lord Lucan or “Lucky Lucan” – the moustachioed aristo with the demure and diminutive wife. They stare out at us from black-and-white photos; he, every inch the bounder and the cad; she, an elegant, prim blonde with a haunted look. What do we know about him? He was a professional gambler. He had a taste for the finer things in life. He enjoyed fast cars and speedboats. He became estranged from his wife and afterwards developed an obsession with gaining custody of their three children. On the evening of November 7th, 1974, he bludgeoned the family’s nanny to death and attacked Lady Lucan. He vanished into the night and was never seen again.
Such is the stuff of legends, but legends do not account for victims. Sandra Rivett, the murdered nanny, became lost in the media furore that surrounded the case. The world was captivated by the glamorous figure of Lord Lucan and the mystery of his disappearance. Although there was little doubt that he had committed the crime, his friends closed ranks to protect him. The name of the real victim was subsumed by the public fascination with whether a man so seemingly unimpeachable would be made to suffer the indignity of actually paying for his crime. There was little focus on the suffering or dignity of Sandra Rivett. The Language of Birds, Jill Dawson’s 10th novel, goes some way towards addressing this injustice.
Mandy River moves to London from the Fens to escape her past and her overbearing mother and begin a new life. Her friend, Rosemary, is a nanny for an upper-class family and she helps Mandy to find a position with Lady Katharine Morven. Lady Morven has recently gained custody of her two children after a bitter battle with her husband. Mandy throws herself into her new role and finds a particular affection for 10-year-old James. Stiff and withdrawn, he has borne the fallout from his parents’ marriage and at one point Mandy sees him, “simply standing, arms by his sides, as if the key in his back needed winding”.
Mandy enjoys the freedom and excitement of her new life in 1970s London, wearing Lady Morven’s Ozzy Clarke hand-me-downs for dates at Annabel’s. But Lord Morven and his spies are ever-present. He has hired private detectives to watch over the house. He telephones at odd hours and hangs up. He arranges a secret meeting with Rosemary to get a character reference for Mandy but Rosemary is seduced by his charm and becomes his defender.
Dawson has chosen to structure the book in two different perspectives. Rosemary’s sections are delivered in the first person, and Mandy’s sections are written in the third. Rosemary is the classic unreliable narrator; she has visions and delusions and believes that she can hear birds talking to her. She is given to petty jealousies and is easily impressed by Lord Morven. Mandy on the other hand is brave and kind and wise to at least some of Lord Morven’s trickery. She is funny too, and when she meets another nanny in the park her mouth reminds her of “the chewed end of a tied balloon. Or an anus.”
Evenness of pacing
Why Dawson has chosen to hand over the first person perspective to the less interesting of the two central characters only becomes apparent when Mandy is murdered. Mandy is incapable of accounting for herself because she has been written out of her own story and it is her friend who must vouch for her.
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.