Harriet Lane: Alys, Always (2012)


Litlove reviewed Harriet Lane’s first novel Alys, Always a couple of weeks ago (here) and it sounded very good. A bit like Ruth Rendell only even more literary. In any case I was curious and had to read it.

Frances drives back home to London from a visit at her parent’s house. It’s winter, cold and dark when she sees something strange on the side of the road in a forest. It’s a car accident. The driver is still alive and Frances stays with her until the ambulance arrives. She only speaks a few words with the woman but those words tell her a lot about her. She sounds like she comes from a well-off family and lives a life of ease. The choice of words, the intonation and the accent tell her all this. Frances may be a mousey looking woman but she’s highly perceptive and sharp.

A little while later the police inform her that the woman, Alys, has died. They ask her whether she is willing to talk to the family but Frances doesn’t feel up to it. She only decides to do it after discovering that the woman whose final moments she witnessed was the wife of one of the most highly acclaimed British writers.

Frances lives an invisible life. She isn’t unhappy but there is nothing that stands out. She is single, doesn’t have a lot of friends, doesn’t care for her family and her job for the book section of a big newspaper is less than fulfilling. When she is offered the opportunity to meet someone famous, she seizes it and with a cold, sly determination, she manages to use every little thing that comes her way.

I wouldn’t call Frances an unreliable narrator. On the very contrary. But she is sly. Calculating, dissecting. Everything she sees is carefully evaluated, assessed and we follow her astonished, wondering all the time what her intentions are and where they will lead her.

It’s fascinating and a bit creepy. I wouldn’t call her a likable person at all but in way she’s understandable and by the time the book ends, we’re glad we didn’t meet her or get in her way.

I wouldn’t exactly compare this novel to Notes on  Scandal but it is written in the same vein. It has also a similarity with Rendell’s A Judgement in Stone. The difference lies in the psychological believability and the writing. Alys, Always wasn’t entirely believable or rather, Frances was very believable but the people around her far less so. However, this small flaw is minimized by the writing. Harriet Lane writes beautifully and that’s why I’d say, the book is more literary than Rendell. Her descriptions are subtle and lyrical, the mood and atmosphere of the book are quiet and cool, the pace is relaxed. It’s eerie, but in a gentle way. Opening the pages and entering the world of Alys, Always is like walking through a huge stylish house in which every detail is carefully selected and arranged. There is only this slightly cool breeze coming from an open French window that makes you shiver just a tiny bit.

If I had to compare this book to a flower, I’d compare it to a white calla.


On the surface Alys, Always is a novel about a woman who knows how to exploit an extraordinary situation but underneath it says a lot about fate and narcissism. As Frances says in the novel, “listening is a dying art form” and because all of the characters in this novel are to some extent narcissistic, they want to be heard and seen and would never question that someone could be far less interested than they pretend to be.

I really hope Harriet Lane is going to write another novel as I liked Alys, Always a great deal. The writing was so beautiful, it made me re-read several passages more than twice before I moved on.