Review: ALYS, ALWAYS by Harriet Lane
The Kytes are keen to meet Frances: after all, she was the last person to see Alys – Laurence’s wife and mother of their two grown-up children – alive. Frances, already unnerved by having come across the crashed car on her drive back to London through dark country lanes, is initially unwilling. But when she learns that Laurence Kyte is a Booker prize-winning novelist, she changes her mind. From then on, she worms her way into the family’s affections, reinventing herself in the process.
Frances, our unreliable guide on this journey, is a subeditor on the book pages of the Questioner, “an invisible production drone” who sees her insignificance reflected back to her in the metallic doors of the office lift. With little prospect of career development, she spends her days correcting other people’s punctuation and grammar:
Turning back to the monitor, I wonder why so few people understand the difference between ‘practise’ and ‘practice’.
Yet Frances is a highly entertaining and seductive narrator: her sharp wit and acute observations make her more than a put-upon pedant. Even as we register our revulsion at her behaviour, we cannot help but marvel at her developing determination to better herself and her capacity to sidestep her critics. With such a colourless existence, can we blame her for wanting to emulate the privileged Kytes? Is she so different to social climbers around her as she claws her way into the inner sanctum of literary London?
Naturally reticent in her interpersonal relationships, it’s appropriate that Frances should withhold from the reader the full extent of her ambition. Much of the tension in the novel comes from wondering how much her infiltration is planned and how much down to chance and/or the family’s own desires, from wondering how far she’s prepared to go. Would she stamp over other people to get where she wants to be? Does she really see herself stepping into the dead woman’s shoes?
The prose is tight and eloquent, peppered with beautifully sensuous images that never slow the pace. For example, at the swimming pool at the Kytes’ second home:
The rectangle of water stretches ahead of me, a calm holy blue snagged with the smallest circle of wrinkles were an insect is floundering. I drop my towel over a chair and stand at the edge with the sun on my back, watching my shadow flying over the pale mosaic, the random neon geometry of sunlight far below.
Frances may be manipulative, but her hard edges are tempered with a caustic sense of humour, with highly entertaining observations of upper-class entitlement and the sycophancy surrounding the successful literati. Her weekend visits to her parents made me laugh out loud: their home is an emotional desert where the preparation, consumption and clearing up of food substitute for any meaningful connection.
Yet these scenes are the key to a deeper understanding of Frances’ character. These parents have never understood her, never had the wherewithal to make her feel loved and secure in herself. The Kytes’ wealth and social standing is merely the trigger for feelings of deprivation and envy at the core of her being.
Creepy, poignant, hilarious, Alys, Always is a compelling debut: if you haven’t yet read it, you’ve got a treat in store.
For more insight into what Harriet Lane thinks of her creation, do take a look at this Q&A with the author: http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/harriet-lane.html
Review by Anne Goodwin
© The Treacle Well 2013