The Language of Birds

Novel, publishing on 4 April 2019
Sceptre hardback £18.99, eBook & audiobook available


A hypnotic novel about class, violence and friendship inspired by the shocking Lord Lucan case and the ‘lovely young nanny’ at its centre, who history has largely forgotten

It’s the summer of 1974, and 26-year-old Mandy River arrives in London with hopes of leaving a troubled past behind her. She soon finds work as a nanny to the children of Lady Katherine Morven, a wealthy society woman in the midst of a messy separation from her enigmatic husband, ‘Dickie’. Katherine’s grand Belgravia house is a far cry from Mandy’s own modest working-class background. But despite the riches and glamour, Mandy soon senses that something isn’t quite right in the Morven home. Men are watching the house and there are strange phone calls day and night. Most alarmingly, the eldest child is acting oddly, and appears to be very frightened of something. According to the mercurial Katherine, who seems to have as many different moods as she does fur coats, her estranged husband is violent, controlling, and not to be trusted. But when Mandy finally meets him, instead of a monster she finds a charming, caring father who claims only to have his children’s best interests at heart. Whom should she believe?–

As Mandy tries to shield her young charges while the Morven’s toxic marriage implodes, her friend Rosemary watches from the wings. But despite her best efforts, Rosemary finds that she cannot protect Mandy as events play out towards their horrifically violent end…

Inspired by the infamous Lord Lucan affair, Jill Dawson explores a shocking murder and its roots from the unusual perspective of the ‘lovely young nanny’ who was largely overlooked. Brining 1970s society to vivid life, this compelling throught-provoking novel shows that then as now, women’s voices all too often went unheard.

Paperback edition now available from Sceptre

‘Timely, devastating and superbly realised’
– Daily Mail

‘The narrative’s progress towards the terrifying evening in the dark basement kitchen has the ineluctable pull of tragic myth. We know what must come, but this knowledge never detracts from the memorable beauty and intelligence of the novel. By focusing on the victim, Dawson allows us to completely rethink the original story in a way that honours Sandra Rivett’s short life.’
–The Guardian.
Read the full review here.

‘Taking inspiration from the Lord Lucan affair, Dawson puts the victim front and centre in her latest novel. Mandy River arrives from an impoverished and dysfunctional family in the Fens to care for the two children of Lady Katherine Morven, recently estranged from her violent husband. Where Mandy is a vibrant and compelling literary creation, full of verve, determination and warmth, her best friend and co-narrator Rosemary is unreliable and self-indulgent. Dawson tackles themes of class, culpability, sex and violence in a powerful and affecting novel.”
The Observer

‘This novel is based closely on the events surrounding the disappearance of Lord Lucan following the murder of the family nanny, Sandra Rivett, in 1974. Focusing as much on the nanny’s life as that of her aristocratic employer, it’s strangely dreamlike, sometimes surreal and always enthralling.’
– Jake Kerridge, Sunday Express

‘A glimmeringly intelligent, vital and compassionate exploration of nature, nurture and female desire, it also taps a deep vein of anger and sorrow at the fate of innumerable abused and murdered women. Timely, devastating and superbly realised.’
Mail Online (full review here)

‘Dawson is an expert on those enduring English themes of class and misogyny and the part they play in determining women’s lives — and often preventable deaths. It was a talent deftly deployed in her earlier semibiographical novel Fred and Edie (2000), a stunning examination of the controversial 1922 Edith Thompson murder case in which Thompson, following a trial as much by media as by a court of law, was hanged as an accessory to her husband’s murder, alongside the actual perpetrator, her lover Frederick Bywaters, despite not having carried out the act herself. In The Language of the Birds, Mandy becomes an uneasy confidante of sorts to the friendless Katharine, although she feels that she isn’t a real person to her, simply a stand-in. Dawson’s referencing of 1970s fashion underlines this: the privileged ladies pass their unworn couture on to their hired helps, right down to their perfume. Sandra’s (and therefore Mandy’s) fates are foreknown, but Dawson’s unsettling novel combines the suspense of a thriller and a haunting sense of melancholy with none of the queasy excess of the true crime genre. Sandra Rivett’s history has long been dismantled and dismissed by a press in thrall to the flashy Lucan lifestyle. Dawson’s insistence that she take prominence with this novel goes some way to achieving a balance, even as the aristocratic carelessness and coldness at the heart of the book prevails.’
– Catherine Taylor, Financial Times. Read the full review here (paywall)

‘In her highly engrossing new novel, Dawson gives powerful voice to someone silenced in history – the murdered nanny at the heart of the notorious case of Lord Lucan, who disappeared on the night of the murder…‘…Dawson delves unflinchingly into themes of domestic violence, mental illness and murder with sensitivity and skill. Her greatest achievement is to make Mandy live from these pages, not only as a victim of a murder but as a young woman filled with an energy too cruelly cut short.”
– iNews.
Read the full review here.

‘Imaginative and even poetic’
– Phil Baker, Sunday Times

 ‘Bloody brilliant’ 
– Sadie Jones, novelist.

‘All in all, this beautifully written novel achieves its aim: it gives the victim back her voice.’
– The Spectator (full review here)

**** ‘Lady Morven and Mandy are superbly drawn characters…this is a sensitive and often beautifully written novel…Dawson’s greatest achievement is to breathe life into Sandra, emphasising that she would deserve our attention even if she had not met such a tragic end.’
– Daily Telegraph

‘Compelling…a heartbreaking read.’
– Sunday Express 

‘Dawson is lauded for her skilful ability to blend biography and fiction…To pull off this literary ventriloquism, she immerses herself in research, then tries to conjure up the real-life figure, so the reader feels they’ve actually met them.’
Radio Times – Interview – 2 April

‘In this gripping, fictional retelling, the nanny is the centre of the story…This dazzling novel combines the pace of a thriller with moving, poetic writing.’
Good Housekeeping – Book of the Month – May issue

the language of birds‘She specialises in telling the secret underbelly of well-known stories. Her new novel The Language of Birds is…poignant and heartbreaking.’
Cosmopolitan –
Louise Doughty loves Jill Dawson – May issue

‘In recent years, female writers have done brisk business reworking ancient myths. In The Language of Birds, her 10th novel, Jill Dawson is not in precisely this territory: you’ll find no armies in her book, and no cities are sacked. Nevertheless, the events on which it is based have long since become something close to folklore.’
– The Observer (full review here)

‘After last year’s A Double Life, comes another stunning novel based on the infamous case of Lord Lucan who disappeared in November 1974 on the night his children’s nanny, Sandra Rivett, was found murdered. In The Language Of Birds, Jill Dawson weaves a heartbreaking story of a young woman arriving in London to start afresh and look after the children of Lord and Lady Morven but soon finds herself a pawn in a bitter custody battle.’
– Red Online

‘Dawson is a novelist everyone should know about. Often tackling real life subjects such as Patricia Highsmith, the poet Rupert Brooke and a criminal East End good time girl, she breathes life and insight into characters. This time, she takes inspiration from Sandra Rivett, Lord Lucan’s murdered nanny. Giving voice to the character so often forgotten in this famous case, she conjures 1960s London with all its sense of hope just as well as the ominous atmosphere at the Lucan’s home. Despite you knowing what’s coming, it’s both atmospheric and genuinely riveting, with a huge feminist heart.’
– Grazia (read the full review here)

‘I loved it. It’s a brilliant riposte to all the Lucan myth-making that has developed over the years – so moving and so righteously angry.’
Paula Hawkins, author of The Girl on the Train

Strange, alluring and gripping. The Language of Birds pulls you towards the inevitable tragedy while delicately unpicking the tangles in the mother-baby-nanny triangle, the British class system and the hidden horrors of domestic violence. Jill Dawson is one of our most interesting writers.’
– Sofka Zinovieff, author of Putney

‘Glorious and exquisitely written. And – for a book that takes one of the most famous murders of the 20th century as its inspiration – astonishingly full of life and joy.’
– Emma Flint, author of Little Deaths

‘What Jill Dawson brilliantly achieves is in The Language of Birds is to make us question ourselves and the ingrained social norm which is to see the woman as a faceless victim.  In creating a character like Mandy, and following her life, her hopes and dreams, we understand that she is a living, breathing woman. We all need to start looking beyond the sensationalist headlines and instead acknowledge that behind every victim is a life lived, a person loved and in this case, a world shattered.
I loved it.’
– Years of Reading Selfishly
blog (full review here)