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Magpie by Elizabeth Day review – a clever thriller about baby hunger | Thrillers

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Infertility, surrogacy, sexual assault, mental illness and a lot of desirable housing stock might seem too much for one book, but with her new novel, Magpie, Elizabeth Day pulls off a polished and creepy thriller which probes at the heart of what it means to be able to conceive a child – or not.

Marisa has found the man of her dreams online: Jake. At their first physical meeting, “she felt a crackle of energy, a fusion of some sort, as if two molecules had collided and meshed and sparked a new thing”. This romantic cliche has a double-edged meaning, and warning signs flash as the twists and turns of Day’s plot unfold. Within three months, Marisa has left her small rented north London flat and moved into Jake’s spacious place in Battersea. A children’s illustrator, she even has room there to have her own studio. Jake wants a family, and so does Marisa – acutely so, as her own mother left with Marisa’s baby sister when she was seven. Apart from Jake’s frosty and controlling mother, Annabelle, who calls unexpectedly one day when Jake is out, all seems ideal. Until Kate arrives as a lodger, and Marisa’s sense of self begins to erode. Why is Kate so intimate with Jake, and why so familiar with the house?

Magpie – that sense of usurpation in the title is appropriate – is a clever novel. After settling into its initial disturbing narrative, the central surprise is a reversal akin to that employed by Lauren Groff in Fates and Furies or Sarah Waters in Fingersmith. On the surface light, bright and breezy, invoking the perfect lives Marisa and Kate both yearn for, it is capable of packing considerable punches: a graphic account of rape; the utter misery attached to the inability to have a child and the accompanying feelings of failure; the desperate unease of not trusting one’s partner; and the stifling nature of a toxic parental relationship. The book is not without its moments of absurdity and caustic wit. Writers as dissimilar as Deborah Moggach (To Have And To Hold) and Elizabeth Taylor (The Wedding Group) have addressed, respectively, the themes of surrogacy and of dysfunctional families, and while Day does not specifically explore the full complexity of surrogacy as a feminist/political issue – it is not that type of book – her depiction of obsession and of the sometimes disastrous psychological effects arising from unfulfilled needs is highly plausible.

Magpie by Elizabeth Day is published by 4th Estate (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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