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.

28 thoughts on “Harriet Lane: Alys, Always (2012)

    • I saw it’s been favourably reviewed by the guardian, which isn’t a bad thing but maybe it just didn’t cross the Ocean yet. It’s decidedy something you might enjoy as well.

  1. Well, anyone compared favorably to Ruth Rendell is someone I need to read! You know I love her work (and have been thinking she is someone I should be reading as part of my “crime spree” reads this month). I also was impressed by the Zoe Heller book–so I have requested this from the library!

  2. I’m so glad you enjoyed this, and I completely agree that the writing was splendid. I also agree with you that oddly enough the other characters are less believable than Frances. I hadn’t thought of it in that light, but I think you’re right. It IS like walking through a very stylish house.

    • I liked the writing a great deal. Elegant and stylish but still realistic and not artificial at all.
      Frances struck me as very believable but how she achieved what she acieved is a bit questionable. I didn’t really get Laurence.
      It’s a flaw but compared to everything else it is minor.

    • In this case it’s importnat that she isn’t too likable. I think what is importnat is that the protagonist is understandable to some extent. If we question the logic in a book, it’s not ideal.

  3. Nice review, Caroline! When I read the author’s name Harriet Lane, I remembered Harriet Vane from the Dorothy Sayers novels and wondered if there was a connection. This book looks quite interesting. The narrator seems to be a complex person, though you have said that she is not exactly unreliable. When I read your description of the first scene where Frances hears Alys’ last words, I was thinking there would be a mystery there and Frances would use her literary knowledge to discover the truth. But after reading your review, it doesn’t look that way – Frances seems to be a complex person and your comparison of the book with ‘Notes to a Scandal’ made me think that Frances has more to her than meets the eye. I liked your comparison of the book with a flower. I will look for this book in the library. Thanks for this beautiful review.

    • Thanks, Vishy, my pleasure. I hope you give it a chance as the wy she writes is well worth discovering.
      There is much more to her than meats the eye, that’s for sure and she still is a mystery after the book has ended.
      There are some answers but way more questions. It alos looks into publishing, the world of book reviews and fame, which is interesting too.
      I think this is even a book I’d like to re-read some day.

  4. Ah! I still haven’t read my Rendell’s book! Hopely sonetime this year.

    Nice review…This Francies character sounds intriguing. I always like the unlikeable character, they are alwaya very intetesting.

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  6. Pingback: Harriet Lane: Her (2014) | Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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