Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 240 pages; 2012.
It’s hard to fault Harriet Lane’s psychological thriller Alys, Always, which has a perfectly paced narrative that becomes increasingly more disturbing and unsettling the further you get into the story.
It opens with Frances Thorpe, a 30-something sub-editor, driving back to London one wintry night after visiting her parents in the countryside. When she turns a bend in the road, she comes across the scene of an accident in which a car is laying on its side. The driver — the only person in the vehicle — is trapped inside.
Frances calls an ambulance and tries to comfort the woman driver whom she cannot see because it is so dark. This turns out to be the last conversation the woman ever has — she dies in hospital later that night.
What should rightly be the end of the story is really just the beginning. The next day a police officer tells Frances that the dead woman’s family would like to get in touch. And so that is how Frances — nervously, warily, cleverly — inveigles her way in to the lives of the Kyte family: 19-year-old Polly, mid-20s Teddy and the woman’s husband, Laurence, a literary star and Booker prize-winning author. Things are never quite the same again.
Motivations of a sub-editor
Alys, Always (the title refers to the dead woman, whose name was Alys) is narrated by Frances in a voice that is believable, vulnerable, sharp and perceptive. But there’s a dark undercurrent that makes you think twice about Frances’ motives: is she being genuine, or is she playing a game of deceit?
For as the story gallops along, Frances becomes more entwined in the Kyte’s lives, first of Polly, whom she befriends in a “big sister” kind of way, and then of Laurence, whose literary credentials offer Frances a shot at the big time herself. That’s because Frances is a downtrodden sub-editor on a struggling newspaper, The Questioner, whom no-one pays the slightest bit of attention to — “I spend my days correcting spelling mistakes and moving commas around” — until she casually mentions that she knows Laurence Kyte. Suddenly this dull, overlooked, single woman gains new-found respect from her colleagues and, especially, her editor.
It’s to the author’s credit that the story never slides into farce, because even though Laurence is a little on the clichéd side (I kept seeing him as a Martin Amis/Ian McEwan type figure, well respected by the establishment but a little bit up his own backside, if you’ll forgive my crudity), everything else feels spot-on. And I loved the little insights into the literary world, the life of a sub-editor (seeing as I’m one too) and the ways in which the newspaper business is slipping into terminal decline.
It’s that kind of detail that makes this a cut above your average run-of-the-mill psychological thriller. This isn’t so much a heart-hammering ride, but one that carefully dissects what it is to climb the social ladder and make something of yourself using guile, cunning and every little opportunity that comes your way. It’s a fun read and one that makes me want to explore more of Harriet Lane’s work: her second novel, Her, was published earlier this year.