Your fantasies of domestic and marital perfection rest on the flimsiest of foundations, subject to destruction at any moment by madness, deceit, revenge, and the emergence of hidden pasts. This is the narrative burden of The Other Child, by Lucy Atkins, or at least part of it. I was prompted to read it partly because Lucy chaired the discussion I took part in at the Oxford Literary Festival last year, and made the whole thing effortless and pleasurable when I’d been unconfident and anxious about it; and partly because I’ve been interested lately in reading works in a tradition of popular genres. The novel’s online blurb categorises it as ‘psychological thriller’, which seems as accurate a label as one can hope for, given the difficult of categorising any literary work. It’s a novel about relationships too, so there’s an element of romantic fiction to it as well.
The Other Child concerns Tess, a photographer, and her new husband, an American surgeon called Greg, and their move from England to a new house and a new life in America. Tess has a school-age son, Joe, from a previous relationship, and, as we begin the novel, she is expecting another child. Elements of the plot feel familiar from films: the perfect middle-class couple who move to a comfortable home but find things starting to unravel. At first there’s a faint element of Gothic to it: Tess and Joe move into the new home before Greg, as he is busy with work, and the unfamiliarity of the new home is evoked powerfully. Someone phones mysteriously but never speaks; Tess isn’t sure if someone is letting themself into the house and moving things around, and she doesn’t altogether trust their immediate neighbours. Unheimlich, but it’s not a haunted-house mystery.
Greg is a paediatric heart surgeon who has been offered a dream contract in Boston, Massachusetts. I was concerned at his being given this professional role, which seemed the stuff of Mills and Boon (no-one ever swooned over a brilliant gerontologist, did they? and still less a proctologist), but Atkins avoids the sentimentality that might come with it: above all, the job means that Greg travels often, and comes home exhausted and can use his tiredness to avoid the difficult questions that begin to arise in his relationship with Tess; it also seems to inform his reluctance to have children, and his ambivalence about the child that’s on the way. Greg has a secret in his past, or indeed several secrets, that he’s reluctant to talk about; Tess’s need to reach the truth is what drives the plot. As I don’t want to give too much away, I shall remain reticent about them myself. The secret-in-the-past is a very familiar plot, and the particular form of Greg’s secret has well-known precedents in fiction and film; but Atkins handles it so that his secret comes across as personally his, and not one bestowed upon him by the genre; and, however far-fetched it might seem in real life, it seems entirely plausible in the world of the novel. It’s plausible in part because it’s emotionally powerful: it embodies truths about what we have to do to survive difficult circumstances and events, and truths about self-transformation and what it necessitates doing to your past.
Tess’s pregnancy is at the centre of the novel. It gives the narrative a very strong sense of the relentless movement of time, and a strong sense of the stakes involved in the relationship. And — although biologically I’m really not qualified to make this claim — it’s brilliant at evoking the feeling of carrying a child, its constant movements and readjustments. Atkins at time hints that the unborn child is responding to the increasing emotional turbulence around it, but at other times equally suggests that the child is in its own world and moving according to its own unfathomable logic. Towards the end of the novel, when it has been born, and when Tess needs to drive through the snow to ensure Joe’s safety, there’s a curious moment when the calm temporality of baby feeding intersects with the urgent temporality of the thriller. Atkins manages this without making either seem out of place. Tess’s pregnancy and the new-born baby keep the novel grounded. And although the novel is often filmic, its descriptions of pregnancy would be very hard ever to convey adequately on screen: written narrative can convey bodily feeling so much more immediately. Though the novel plays on our fears about the precariousness of our comfortable lives, there’s also a more optimistic side, and it’s connected to the pregnancy and the new child: there’s an authenticity in intimacy that can survive disasters; the glimpses of love seen in someone deceitful might be worth holding on to.
(NOTE: When I was about half-way through the novel, I came across a 2014 article by Lucy Atkins in the Guardian about the family history that lies behind the novel, and its predecessor The Missing One; it’s a powerful piece of writing in itself (here it is), but I’d suggest leaving it until after you’ve finished The Other Child.)