Harriet Lane's debut novel, Alys, Always, was recommended to me by my old bookseller friend, Danny, at West End Lane Books when I was looking for authors who write about North London for next year's Crouch End Festival (more about this later). I didn't really know what kind of book it was, but trusted that Danny knew exactly what I like. And I was right!
Alys, Always tells the story of Frances whose unhappy and dull life as a sub-editor of a literary magazine changes when, on a cold winter's night, she happens upon the aftermath of a car crash. What follows is a modern story of one woman's quest to better her situation, yet this is also a chillingly familiar - and depressingly common - tale.
The first person narrative adds a psychological thriller-like quality to Lane's writing; the readers is never quite sure what is going to happen next, nor whether the main protagonist is completely self-deluded or not. Francis is clearly unhappy, but is she also dangerously unhinged? It's this unpredictability of the main character's intentions, which drives the readers curiosity, and renders the book completely unputdownable. (I read it in a matter of days.)
As well as being a fast read, Alys, Always is also brilliantly written. The voice of the narrator is sharp and distinct. Here, Frances describes twenty-something daughter of the well-to-do family she befriends, 'Polly's very young, of course; and on top of that she has the performer's transparent and somehow rather tawdry desire for attention.'
I usually dislike the use of similes, but here they add a double-layered richness to the prose, exactly what they were invented for. When Frances describes a meal at her parents house, Lane gives an insight into the relationship between mother and daughter which is pure genius, 'She passes me the cheese plate with its fussy little knife, the knife that forks at the end like a serpent's tongue.'
Alys, Always is an excellent read. At one level it examines modern life, ambition, celebrity and the morality of networking. At another it's just a good old-fashioned rollocking read. I highly recommend it.
by Harriet Lane