Sunday, 21 October 2012

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

Harriet Lane's debut novel Alys, Always was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson (an imprint of Orion) in February 2012.

The beautiful, quirky cover illustration perfectly encapsulates the contents of this short, but extremely tight novel; the silhouette of a woman looking into the brightly lit windows of a house - a woman on the edge, looking at something she wants.   That woman is Frances, the most unreliable narrator of the story.

Frances lives a conventional, unexciting life, she's in her thirties, a book page sub-editor on a newspaper and doesn't appear to have many friends.  Her parents live in the country and stifle her, her sister is busily married with children.  Frances is travelling home from a visit with her parents when she comes across a car accident, there is nothing she can do for the female driver of the car except comfort her until the emergency services arrive and hear her last words.

This is the first and last act of selflessness that Frances does throughout the novel.   Frances discovers that the driver was Alys Kyte, the wife of Booker winning novelist Lawrence Kyte, and when the Kyte family ask to speak with her, the seeds of what 'could be' are planted firmly in her mind.

Frances slowly but surely becomes a part of the Kyte's lives.  Befriending young Polly Kyte appears to be something she feels she ought to do, rather than something she wants to do, but gradually it becomes clear that Frances has a plan for her future and Polly's friendship will pave the way for her.

Harriet Lane
The truth gradually dawns on the reader.  Harriet Lane has drawn a complex character in Frances, initially she appears quite harmless, shy, a little vulnerable and possibly naive but as the story unfolds the questions arose in my mind.    Very slowly, very subtly, Frances is exposed to the reader, but not to the other characters and the story takes on a psychological chill.  Not once does Frances appear to put a foot out of place, but she has a creepiness about her that sent chills down my spine.

Alys, Always is an excellent debut novel that is sparsely yet elegantly written, and leaves questions that may never be answered for the reader to contemplate.

Harriet Lane's website can be found here, you can follow her on Twitter here.

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