Isn’t it funny how some books slip the reviewing net? In my case, they are so often novels I’ve really enjoyed but which don’t immediately provoke a critical response. And I don’t mean a negative response, but some thought or feeling about how they work, or what they are saying. I suppose the thing about blogging (or indeed reading any book) is that I like to have something more to say than ‘I loved it’. However, in this instance, Alys Always by Harriet Lane, I did love it and feel I must at least say this much in its recommendation.
The novel opens on a scene of chilling calamity. Frances Thorpe is on her way back to London after a visit to her parents when she comes across a car that has driven off the road in an accident. She realises there is someone trapped in the driver’s seat, and as she frantically dials for an ambulance, she exchanges a few words with her. The woman seems calm and not in pain, but the windscreen is shattered in such a way that Frances cannot see her, or the extent of her injuries. At some uncertain point in the cold and the dark as they wait for the rescue services, the woman dies. Frances drives back to London shocked and chastened, her sorry little flat seeming not so bad after all.
A few days later, Frances is at work when she is contacted by the police. Would she be prepared to talk to the family of the crash victim? It is, apparently, helpful in allowing them to find ‘closure’. At first, Frances is unwilling. But then she finds out that the victim was Alys Kyte, the well-to-do wife of starry British novelist, Laurence Kyte, and she hatches a plan. A copy editor on the beleaguered books section of a downsizing newspaper, The Questioner, Frances is painfully aware that her life is going nowhere. She is nothing more than an underpaid and underappreciated minion in her job, she’s no longer all that young, she has no friends, no love life and has spent her years being ignored and unrecognised by others. She doesn’t even feel at home with her parents, whose cheery, limited mentality never properly embraces her. So she goes to see the Kytes in their lovely Highgate home. And she tells Laurence and his two twenty-something children a little white lie; she passes on a message of love for them that Alys never actually spoke in her dying moments. But it creates a bond of gratitude and opens the doorway a sliver, just enough for Frances to get her foot over the threshold.
The thing about this book is that it is really very clever. Frances has a particular talent that serves her well as both a first-person narrator, and as an infiltrator to a family steeped in money and privilege: she is acutely and insightfully observant. It’s her natural inclination to keep herself quietly to the margins of any event – this is the tendency that has kept her so overlooked until now – and it serves her in good stead here as the reader becomes far more caught up in the situation and what Frances might do next, than any awkward moralising about her actions. We coast through this story on the coattails of Frances’ quick-witted intelligence, only slowly and gradually realising that we, too, have underestimated her.
I don’t want to give anything away, as there is so much pleasure to be had in finding out how Frances transforms her life. But it was one of those books that I couldn’t wait to get back to. It is seductively well-written, light, easy, beautifully observed and stealthily cunning. Just one thing: there seems to be a tendency for reviewers to use the word ‘thriller’ in its vicinity, and if you expect it to fall into that genre you will be disappointed. It is a slow-burning novel of psychological suspense, with an ending that is not at all climactic, but quietly creepy once you have closed the covers.