I read Lucy Atkins’ debut novel The Missing One in 2014 and adored it. It was one of my favourite books of that year – combining a tale of family and long lost secrets with (of all things!) a passion for killer whales. Her next book, The Other Child felt like quite a departure. I enjoyed it but was a little surprised that it seemed so different to its predecessor. And here we are again, with Atkins offering up something completely different, which I guess says something about her versatility as a writer and storyteller.
The Night Visitor
by Lucy Atkins
Published by Quercus
on June 1st 2017
Source: Hachette Australia
Genres: Literary Fiction, Thriller / Suspense
Professor Olivia Sweetman has worked hard to achieve the life she loves, with a high-flying career as a TV presenter and historian, three children and a talented husband. But as she stands before a crowd at the launch of her new bestseller she can barely pretend to smile. Her life has spiralled into deceit and if the truth comes out, she will lose everything.
Only one person knows what Olivia has done. Vivian Tester is the socially awkward sixty-year-old housekeeper of a Sussex manor who found the Victorian diary on which Olivia's book is based. She has now become Olivia's unofficial research assistant. And Vivian has secrets of her own.
As events move between London, Sussex and the idyllic South of France, the relationship between these two women grows more entangled and complex. Then a bizarre act of violence changes everything.
I should mention Atkins does – in all of her work – draw on challenging relationships, past secrets and seems to have a passion for science-y type stuff. Here, for example there’s Olivia’s father, who we don’t meet, but learn was a prominent academic and biologist who studied beetles and achieved some fame in that field. And although not the actual subject of this book, the beetle ‘thing’ (if not a theme) pervades the telling of this story, and – occasionally – the prose.
She turned and beetled across the room on crepe-soled shoes. p 71
Olivia herself is a historian and – through the book she’s writing – there are occasional references to early feminist movements and the first female medical students and doctors (and on that note, I was reminded of Natasha Lester’s A Kiss From Mr Fitzgerald).
Atkins wrote this book in a way in which there’s a shadow of foreboding. We know something’s happened with Vivian and we know (as a result) Olivia’s book and reputation (and perhaps her livelihood) are on the line. The author cleverly ekes out that element of the story however, so we aren’t quite sure what it is that puts Olivia’s book at risk. And even when we do know, we’re not quite sure where the risk lies.
When all this began, I was a desperate beast. I have done unforgivable things. I wish I could turn back the clock but it is too late now – honesty would only cause havoc and chaos. It is much better to put it all behind me and to look forward now. Nobody need ever know what I have done. p 114
In some ways it’s a novel of suspense, though there’s no threat of death or physical danger. Just a feeling of malice. Of spite and of hatred simmering beneath the uncomfortable relationship Olivia and Vivian have formed.
I guessed the plot-twist though wasn’t entirely sure how it would play out. I was keen to know what happened though, so felt compelled to keep reading.
Having said that, there were a few weaknesses here for me. Although I ‘liked’ Olivia I didn’t really engage with her or Vivian in a way I would have liked. I would have said Olivia was the main character, but interestingly Atkins delivers her chapters in third person and it’s Vivian from whom we hear in first person.
I am ashamed of the person I was then, that gloomy rotten experimenter, sitting behind someone else’s desk. p 111
The timing also seemed a bit off as we jumped about a little and the sojourn in France seemed a bit pointless other than introducing a second ‘night visitor’ of sorts, into the life of Olivia and her family this time, joining Vivian’s long-term tormentor.
In addition, Olivia and Vivian have been collaborating on the novel for 18mths but I didn’t get a good sense of their relationship through the anecdotes shared – though it was interesting how each of the women viewed the same encounters very differently.
I was intrigued by Olivia’s personal life and perhaps would have liked a little more there, though I also guessed at what was amiss in the family dynamics (and that’s just cos I’m not very trusting and naturally suspicious!).
I did enjoy Olivia’s internal quandaries in terms of her integrity, ethics, fame and need for external validation (damned fathers with their high expectations and exacting standards!). Her need to draw on her ‘name’, reputation and popularity (for financial purposes) and her fear of how she’d be perceived by fellow academics and colleagues was an interesting one – and relevant given the ease with which we elevate chefs, scientists, writers and actors into god-like idols via the media and online world.
I was perhaps a little disappointed (or frustrated) by the end, but although it’s a good outcome in some ways, we lovers of closure and control didn’t entirely get our fix.
One of the greatest lessons (or rather reminders) out of this book for me is that people aren’t either just good or bad. Not black or white in that sense. It’s no surprise that people do what they need to in order to survive, or for their kids and families. If slightly twisted, there’s also stuff they’ll do out of ambition, or revenge. I certainly believe that greyness has a place in our world but the point worth pondering is where we draw the line. Or where we’re prepared to draw the line.
The Night Visitor by Lucy Atkins was published in Australia by Hachette and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.