Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

I’ve just finished reading Harriet Lane’s debut novel, Alys, Always. There have been many positive reviews and this is a book with a buzz and a big promotional push behind it. Lane was, maybe still is, a journalist, and I suspect she is rather well connected. She writes beautifully. By which I mean she describes things excellently. Looking through the cooly appraising eyes of her first person narrator, Frances, we see, as she does, the objects and decor, the books and foods, the lives of her family, colleagues, friends, and the Kytes, and they are brought to life for us in this way. 

“My parents have set up a picnic table in the garden. ‘Isn’t this glorious?’ my mother says, unpopping foldable chairs and disregarding the rather stiff breeze that is sending the paper napkins fluttering like giant yellow butterflies into the euphorbias.” 

It reveals so much about the mother it’s really wonderful. Yet at other times the prose  seems overdone.

“Just for a moment, as I stand by the sink peeling a long rosy spiral from the yellow flesh of an apple, I think about all of this and what it means to me.” 

Do we really need both the “rosy spiral” and the “yellow flesh”? Perhaps we do. I’m a far plainer writer, more likely to write “…peeling an apple…”

The story opens interestingly enough, with Frances driving home from her parents and coming across a car accident. She keeps the dying driver company whilst she awaits an ambulance, and becomes the last person to speak to Alys Kyte, wife of famous author Laurence. From this moment on Frances becomes involved in the Kyte’s lives. 

I’m baffled by the praise heaped on what seems to be a rather shallow novel. Touted as a psychological thriller it’s really not. I was waiting for a twist or reveal to force me to rethink the whole thing, but it never came. It’s a not terribly exciting story about a woman who aspires to be more, and have more, but she’s not exactly awful about it. It’s more a case of worming her way into people’s affections with flattery and faux interest. Hardly thrilling. There’s a weird bit where she becomes a reader for the same woman that Alys was a reader for, and the whole part feels entirely bolted on as if an editor advised there should be some additional stalky creepiness. 

The prose is delicious but is steeped in the kind of ultra middle-classness that made me think of those times a Daily Mail columnist bemoans the high price of cashmere or something and the whole of twitter mocks mercilessly. As for Frances, well, she’s so chilly it’s impossible to warm to her. It’s ultimately a novel that I found difficult to care about.

By the way, I have no idea why some of this post is double spaced and one quote is highlighted white. I’ve tried to look at the html but can’t make head nor tail!

4 thoughts on “Alys, Always by Harriet Lane”

  1. You sure know how to put a twist in a narrative; I so thought you were loving the book when I bagan to read this post. I'm also put off by privillege-plus narratives – see, I even have my own term for it – though I try not to let my bias dictate my choices for me. I'll have to pick this book up now, though, if only to get a whiff of DM – keep the fires stoked. For research purposes only, you understand.

  2. Have only seen this now, Sara – a perceptive review. I saw a few books like this when I used to review regularly (for Pulp Net and the Big Issue, among others). I ended up with a whole shelf full of gorgeous looking hardbacks that I called my unreadable review copies shelf, eventually filled a couple of suitcases bringing them to the charity shop.

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