Magpies carry more than their fair share of superstition, so when a single black-and-white bird (one for sorrow) swoops down on to the opening pages of Elizabeth Day’s fifth novel, it is telling. Yet even this feathered augury can’t prepare the reader for the discombobulating twists and volte-faces that follow.
It’s a London property viewing that the avian interloper disrupts, flying in to a house being shown to Marisa, a 28-year-old children’s books illustrator. A vase is smashed before it flits out, but Marisa is undeterred: the airy calm, the brickwork the colour of toasted hazelnuts – here is the perfect home for the family she’s about to start with new boyfriend Jake, a floppy-haired finance type 11 years her senior.
Marisa’s past is blighted by abandonment and abuse. Motherhood, she’s convinced, will make everything right. Too tidy? There’s plenty more to make alert readers worry for her, but it’s when the couple are forced to rent out a room that things really come apart.
Their new lodger is 36-year-old film publicist Kate. Dark-haired and gamine – Marisa’s exact opposite physically – she’s unsettlingly without boundaries, placing her toothbrush beside Marisa’s and Jake’s in the master bathroom, and forever trying to cosy up to Marisa. Jake, troublingly, seems oblivious.
When the viewpoint shifts from Marisa’s to Kate’s, Magpie becomes an altogether less predictable, more volatile story
So far, so domestic noir, but when the viewpoint abruptly shifts from Marisa’s to Kate’s, Magpie becomes an altogether less predictable, more volatile story, one that revolves around the all-consuming longing and sadness of infertility, and the desperate lengths to which it can drive people. Day has written as a journalist about her own experience of miscarriage and IVF; this fictional exploration dives deeper still.
It’s hard to do justice to her treatment of these themes without spoilers. Cannily, the tense, ultimately cathartic psychological drama that ensues explains away any shakier-seeming aspects of the book’s first section, including a particularly gynaecological sex scene. (Should the word “stretched” ever be used in a libidinous context? Let’s agree not.)
With its painful uncertainty, extremes of emotion and onslaught of hormones, the struggle to conceive is innately dramatic. Day’s cleverness lies in fashioning from these ingredients a pacy, stylish thriller in which suspense is accompanied by fist-pumping feminism and, perhaps toughest of all, hope.
• Magpie by Elizabeth Day is published by HarperCollins (£14.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.