Alys, Always (2012) by Harriet Lane
Alys, Always, the first novel by Harriet Lane, has received rather a lot of press, and all of it - without exception, as far as I'm aware - has been positive. Given that the author is a former journalist who has written for most of the British broadsheets, this isn't so surprising. But a few things about the book grabbed my attention anyway: the beautiful cover, the promise of a story set amidst the London literary scene, the comparisons to Zoe Heller's masterful Notes On a Scandal.
Frances Thorpe is a struggling journalist who is driving home one night when she sees an overturned car by the side of the road. She rushes to help, and has a short conversation with the woman trapped inside the car, who then lapses into unconsciousness just as an ambulance arrives. Later, Frances learns that the woman, Alys Kyte, died just minutes later. When Frances is asked to visit the Kyte family to talk about Alys's last words, her natural impulse is do what's necessary and escape as quickly as possible - until she realises that Alys was the wife of a celebrated, Booker-winning author, Laurence Kyte. Partly by chance and partly by design, she starts an unconventional friendship with the Kytes' 19-year-old daughter Polly, and soon sees an opportunity to ingratiate herself with the family and to better herself, both personally and professionally.
It's only since I've begun writing this review that I've recognised the similarities between this book and one of my very favourite reads from last year - Gillespie and I by Jane Harris. Much like Gillespie and I's Harriet Baxter, Frances is a single woman with a rather empty life - though her age is never actually revealed, it's implied that she is in her mid-thirties, and she spends her days toiling away as a sub-editor on a left-of-centre newspaper, the Questioner. She has few friends, an awkward and distant relationship with her parents, and is often treated as a dogsbody by her boss. However, she is not simply a lonely person craving any sort of human interaction: faced with potential interest from a scruffily dressed, but nevertheless attractive and available, male colleague at a party in his shabby flat, she baulks and flees. Rather, Frances fancies herself as something of a social climber, and as she begins to realise how far her association with the Kytes could take her, her determination and ambition grow - along with her deviousness.
At numerous points, Frances is asked: 'where did you come from?' The words are spoken both as an accusation and an endearment. This book - Frances's story - is the answer to that question. With the pace and lucidity of a thriller, Lane shows us how quickly Frances is seduced by the Kytes' lifestyle - not just the privilege and status, the adoring acolytes and luxurious homes, but how easy and expected it all is. The simplest observations of the family's everyday routines illustrate with great clarity how unassumingly blessed they are, and this is a state Frances becomes increasingly desperate to achieve. The reader, too, is beguiled by this coveted lifestyle: at so many points I just wanted to jump into the book, to live inside it. In this it reminded me of another great, and similarly evocative, read from last year - The Poison Tree by Erin Kelly. But where Kelly's novel was ruined by a daft, schlocky ending, Lane's boasts a conclusion that is dark, delicious, and absolutely perfect. Frances is a brilliant creation, by turns sympathetic and terrifying, but always so believable that you forget you're reading fiction.
Engrossing to the point of being absolutely addictive, this is one of those books that makes you feel you've fallen into a different world: after I'd devoured it within less than 24 hours, I looked up from it dazed and a little bit lost. In this review, I have defined it mainly through comparisons to other books, but it is a wonderful novel in its own right. I have a penchant for debut fiction, and am often drawn to first novels, but even so, this really is a stunning effort. I loved the story, loved the style and found myself thoroughly under the spell of Frances and the Kyte family. Harriet Lane, you have a fan for life!