Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Fiction, Harriet Lane, London, Phoenix, Setting

‘Her’ by Harriet Lane


Fiction – paperback; Phoenix; 256 pages; 2015. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Whenever I’m feeling under the weather I love nothing more than curling up under the duvet with a good psychological thriller: something that’s fast-paced and won’t tax my brain too much. So this weekend, after four very intense weeks at work (in the lead-up to my Christmas break), I finally succumbed to a horrid head cold. Thank goodness, then, for Harriet Lane’s latest novel, which was an effective diversion from the aching sinuses, the snotty nose and the ever-increasing mountain of used tissues by my side.

Some of you may recall that I read Lane‘s debut novel, Alys Always, in the summer and loved the story of a manipulative young woman who inveigles her way into the life of a rich author, so I was looking forward to her new one.

Her, which was published in hardcover in June and is due for paperback release next month, is cut very much from the same kind of cloth. It’s a proper page turner that brings to mind the likes of Nicci French — one of my favourite psychological thriller writers — but never slides into farce or violence. Instead it’s rooted very much in the every day, which makes it all the more sinister.

An unlikely friendship

The story revolves around the unlikely friendship between two women, both of whom are around the same age: Emma has given up a TV career to have children and is caught up in the day-to-day struggle to raise two young ones while her husband juggles a freelance job that barely covers the bills; and Nina is a successful artist, with an equally successful architect husband and a 17-year-old daughter (from her first marriage).

The pair meet when Nina returns Emma’s wallet, which she claims to have found on the local high street. What Emma doesn’t realise — and which Nina takes great pains to disguise  from her “new” friend — is that the pair met 20 years earlier, as teenagers.

As Emma and Nina’s lives become more and more entwined over the course of the novel, it becomes clear (to the reader) that Nina is a rather nasty piece of work, hellbent on wreaking revenge on a rather hapless and naive Emma. But she does it in such a smooth, almost guileless way, that no one seems to notice, making her behaviour all the more chilling.

A tense read

Both Emma and Nina take it in turns to tell their version of events in alternate chapters, which is a great device for building tension. It also shows Emma’s desperation to be viewed as a person (rather than a mother, whose life now revolves around “scraping and rinsing and wiping and sweeping”) in contrast with Nina’s chilling level of self-control. But if I was to fault the novel it would be that the two voices are barely distinguishable from one another.

However, that doesn’t really matter, because what makes Her work as a page turner is two-fold: we never quite know what is motivating Nina — what is it that Emma did that requires this level of well-plotted revenge? — and will Emma cotton on to the threat before it’s too late?

Admittedly, the denouement falls a bit flat, but I loved the slow-building of suspense and my inability to guess Nina’s next move. It’s a deeply unsettling read that feeds into every mother’s deepest fears — and the danger that lurks where we least expect it.

Author, Book review, crime/thriller, England, Fiction, Harriet Lane, London, Phoenix, Publisher, Setting

‘Alys, Always’ by Harriet Lane

Alys always

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.