Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

What a wonderful book: it is clever, subtle, clear and compelling.

It begins with Frances, driving back to her home in London on Sunday evening after spending the weekend with her parents.

She sees an overturned car in the road. And so she stops, she calls the emergency services, and then she goes to speak to the woman in the car, to reassure her that help is on the way.

The woman is trapped, and she is injured, but she is calm and lucid. Alys waits with her until help arrives and then she continues on her journey home.

Back to her life in London where she lives a quiet, unremarkable life. Frances is a sub-editor, working for the literary editor of a national newspaper; she wanted to be in that world but she wanted more than she had. Quite understandably.

A few days after the accident Frances learned that the woman in the car had died. The police ask her if she will visit the woman’s family, to tell them what she knew of what had happened, to help them understand. She is reluctant, but she knows that it is the right thing to do.

She was the last person to speak to Alys Kyte.

Alys: wife of Lawrence Kyte, the celebrated, prize-winning author.

She visits an elegant Highgate townhouse, and she sees the world where she has always wanted to live. She takes care to offer words of comfort to Laurence, the grieving widower. And to say the right things to his son, Teddy and his daughter, Polly.

Polly needed a friend in London, near her drama school, and she saw that Frances could fill that role; and Frances saw how much she could gain from becoming a friend of the family.

She worked hard to gain her entrée into their world. And she accepted the career advancement that came her way when the company she was keeping was noticed. In time it seemed natural and right, that she had earned her place in the inner circle of literary London.

Bust she also had to be careful. Because what would the answers be in anyone ever asked who she was, where she had come from?

Intriguing questions, and I was pulled this way and that as I wondered what would happen. At times I felt such empathy with Frances, and I could always understand what drove her. But there were times when I instinctively felt that she should pull away, step back. And she didn’t.

This is a story that brings a clever mixture of influences together beautifully. It could be Patricia Highsmith writing with Barbara Pym. Or Anita Brookner writing with Barbara Vine perhaps.

But no, it’s Harriet Lane, and she has created something that is entirely her own. She writes with both elegance and clarity, she balances suspense with acute observation, and she understands her characters, their relationships, the worlds they move in absolutely perfectly.

She held me from the beginning to the very end.

That ending was perfect: unexpected, thought-provoking, and exactly right.

I am left thinking about everything that happpened, and what might have happened after the end of the final chapter.

And wondering what Harriet Lane might write next …

11 responses

  1. I can’t find Harriet Lane in either of our library systems here. It’s so tempting to order an intriguing book like this from one of the UK sites, when I can’t get it here in the US.

    • This only came out last month here, but it’s with a major publisher so hopefully it will get to you one day. I noticed recently that I used to be quite happy waiting for paperback editions to come out, but now I order hardbacks from the library as soon as I spot them. Patience is a virtue, but one I seem to have lost when it comes to books …

  2. I like the sound of this book! I’m sure I have read something else about this book recently but not sure where or what, it’s that spelling of Alys that rings a bell. It sounds like a book I would enjoy.

    • I’ve had a very good run lately. Should you need any more convincing, there are some lovely bookish references that I’ve noted in the Fiction Virago Readers thread of the LT group …

  3. Ooh I saw a review of this in the Sunday Times Culture section and thought it might be a book I’d like to read. Couldn’t find it in Waterstones though. I now really really want to read it having read your review.

  4. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t seem to be available at my library, so I will add it to the list of books I’d like to buy someday. You made it sound so interesting.

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