Harriet Lane’s second novel – like her first – is clever, subtle, cool and compelling.
It tells the story of Emma and Nina, two women of the same age who are near-neighbours in north London.
Nina is a successful artist, and she lives with her older husband and with Sophie, the 17-year-old daughter of an early, failed marriage. She is independent – her husband’s successful career as an architect means that he is often away – she is poised, and she enjoys the fruits of her success.
Emma is the stay-at-home mother of a toddler and a newborn baby. It wasn’t practical for her to pick up the threads of her freelance career. They were a happy family, but sometimes Emma missed the woman she used to be.
Nina found and returns the purse that Emma apparently lost during a trip to the shops, and then there was another occasion for her to step in, with charm and diplomacy, to save the day. And another.
Emma was so pleased to have such a friend, a friend who understood what she was had to cope with from day to day, and a friend who understood that she was more than a wife and mother. But she didn’t see how very brittle Nina was, and she didn’t know that her overtures of friendship were the first step towards revenge for something that happened years ago.
The narration is shared between Nina and Alice, often – but not always – having each tell the same story. That shows so clearly that they see the same things very differently, and that there are many things that Emma doesn’t see, that Emma misinterprets. It isn’t that she’s a fool; there is nothing at all to suggest that Nina’s motivations are anything less that straightforward.
Harriet Lane writes beautifully, catching the details of two women’s lives, making her story utterly compelling, and steadily increasing the tension.
It was so easy to feel for Emma. Her situation – she loved her husband, he loved her, they both loved their children, but she was losing herself as she played her role and struggled with the volume of work that involved, so often running to stand still – was so very well observed, and so very believable. And she was so vulnerable, bit she didn’t know, there was no way she could have known.
When Nina’s motivations became clearer I questioned whether her revenge was disproportionate to her grievance. But maybe she was even more fragile that she thought, maybe she traced a great deal back to Emma all those years ago, maybe she got a little too caught up with her scheme ….
I had doubts, but I decided I could live with them.
I could understand that she was troubled and why she was troubled, but I’m inclined to think that even in other circumstances she would have been too cool, too composed, for me to feel much empathy.
The tension grew as the end of the story drew nearer.
The denouement was mundane, the writing was understated but the consequences were clear.
I caught my breath.
The story had been so clever, so quietly compelling, so horribly believable, and now it was over.