Alys, Always by Harriet Lane: Review
Frances Thorpe works as a lowly desk editor on the books pages of a Sunday broadsheet. Single, quiet and constantly overlooked at work, she is driving home in the dark when she sees a car on its side in a ditch. Whilst waiting for the emergency services to come she talks and tries to reassure the woman alone and trapped in the car.
Later she learns from the police that the woman died and her family would like to meet her to thank her, being the last person she spoke to. Frances discovers that the woman, the Alys of the title, was the wife of the Booker prize winning writer Laurence Kyte. Once she has glimpsed their world of privilege, she decides to ingratiate herself into their lives. Little by little, she wheedles her way into their inner sanctum which, in turn, transform her own job prospects and the way people suddenly take notice of her, all the while setting her sights on the final prize.
The novel is a great character study of one woman’s journey to better herself and her lot and what lengths she will go to to do so. It is also a very amusing social satire of literary London (I bet more than a few people were wondering if they were the basis for characters) but it never resorts to caricature. Lane has that rare ability to draw a character with hardly any physical description yet you immediately know exactly what sort of person they are.
As well as having created one of the most finely drawn arch manipulators on a par with Becky Sharp from Vanity Fair, Lane also manipulates the reader’s own emotions towards the narrator; are we supposed to sympathise with her, identify with her? Is she ‘one of us’ even though she’s a scheming, stealing embroiderer of the truth? Should we be rooting for her?
In an excruciating scene where Frances stays overnight with her parents, Lane manages to make her appear both snobbish and cutting, and yet I also felt desperately sad for her. The little details of the UHT cartons and sugar sachets laid out in her bedroom, her mother’s brittleness, the suburban conversations revolving ringroads and B&Q. All this is juxtaposed with the relaxed, easy charm Frances experiences at the Kytes’ summer country house. I fell in love with ‘Nevers’ the fictional house portrayed here just like Charles Ryder fell for Sebastian’s ancestral home Brideshead and Nick Carraway envied Gatsby’s mansion.
After I finished Alys Always, I looked up the author Harriet Lane and realised that she’d written some articles in The Guardian that I’d torn out and kept.
I thought this was a stunning debut novel and I will definitely look out for whatever she writes next.