ALYS ALWAYS is Harriet Lane’s debut novel about the ‘little’ people, the ones that make world turn for the ones who think it turns just because they will it to. With a cast of morally dubious characters it is both a satire of celebrity culture and an indictment of how lost all of us really are.
What matters is ‘who you know’ and in the small and nepotistic literary world, Frances Thorpe (thirty something sub editor on The Spectator) doesn’t know anyone. That is until she meets Alys Kyte, trapped (and as it turns out dying) inside her overturned car on a lonely, country road. At first Frances wants to forget the horrible incident, until she realises who Alys was married to; literary heavyweight Laurence Kyte. When she is asked to meet the family (for closure) she is invited into a world of privilege and entitlement. Encouraging the friendship of Polly, who is missing her mother and nursing a family secret, Frances’ metamorphosis begins.
Frances is a complicated and calculating female character, which makes this a refreshing read. No chick-lit heroines here. Hallelujah! The story taps into the jealousy us ‘little’ people feel when we pore over the pages of glossy magazines at the lives of the fated, and asks the question; what would you do?
There are two reasons I really enjoyed this novel. The first is the clean prose. Harriet Lane bravely puts her command of grammar under the spotlight by making Frances a pedant, who spends her days correcting book reviews for the magazine she works on. A great plot can be ruined by sloppy writing, and although of the two plot is key, many times I have given up on a book because the writing overwhelmed me (and not in a good way). It is said that great writing is invisible, which does not mean it is without voice or personality rather it does not eclipse the story and become a thing in its own right. Rest assured Alys Always has a clear, ego-less voice in direct contrast to the lauded novels of the ‘emotionally lazy’ Laurence Kyte. Harriet Lane is making a subtle point in both ‘how’ she writes and in Frances assessment of what passes as ‘great’ literature.
My second reason is an emotional one – the most reliable indicator of a good book – and more specifically how I felt about it when I wasn’t reading it. Like falling in love, I was excited about seeing it again and planned ways of making time for it. I thought about it frequently. I was desperate to find out how it all turned out, but at the same time didn’t want it to end. On finishing it, I missed it.
The novel’s protagonist reminds me of the insidious character of Barbara in Zoe Heller’s Notes on Scandal. Like Barbara, Frances’ actions are driven by dubious motives, but the people around her are so convinced of their ‘special’ status that you can’t help but wish she succeeds.
My only minor criticism is that the ending, although satisfying, would have been improved by an increase in conflict. I was craving a character that could really challenge the status quo and push Frances to her limits (and beyond them).
I would certainly read more from Harriet Lane and for those who want a story where the woman isn’t a simpering simpleton waiting for Mr Right, then ALYS ALWAYS is the book for you.
Let me know what you think? Does it matter to you if the lead character is likeable or not?
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