Book Review: Alys, Always

Alys, AlwaysAlys, Always
by Harriet Lane
Scribner, 2012
209 pages (hardcover)

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Driving back to London from the countryside on an icy evening, Frances Thorpe comes upon a car accident. She can’t get to the driver, who calls to her saying her name is Alice and that she spun out trying to avoid a fox. Frances tries to keep Alice talking while they wait for the ambulance, but the trapped woman’s voice is getting weaker. When the paramedics arrive and set up heavy machinery to cut through the crumpled car, the police draw Frances away to take her statement, sending her home with a promise that they’ll be in touch. And when they call, they inform her that they did what they could, but Alice didn’t make it.

“Alice” turns out to be Alys Kyte, wife of Laurence Kyte, the prize-winning novelist. Frances, a copy editor for the books section of a prominent newspaper, is familiar with Kyte’s work. She’s never met him, since her bosses only send connected people to their literary soirees and she has only her skills to recommend her. But his work is interesting, not least because of the circles he moves in. So when the family asks to meet her, hoping to find some closure by thanking the woman who kept their wife/mother company at the end, she agrees to a meeting at their home.

And that’s when she decides she will do more than console them; she will become them. Alys is gone, and Frances will take her place.

She finds nothing disturbing about this notion. Who isn’t doing what it takes to get ahead? Who isn’t pretending to be someone else? She sees it everywhere: at work, with her parents’ friends, at a party:

…he introduces me to some people, Nick and Catriona, and I hear myself asking questions and talking, about films and work and where and how I live. I sound quite unlike myself, but of course nobody here knows the difference. I listen to Catriona making a joke about the host of a reality TV show, the line of her asymmetrical bob swinging against her jaw as she turns her head to monitor our responses, and I think, We’re all pretending. The room is full of constructs and inventions. People are experimenting, trying out lines, seeing what goes down best and takes them furthest. I watch the ways they betray themselves and their intentions, the way they draw closer to and turn away from each other. I hear the things they say and the things they leave unsaid.

Frances is an expert at reading between the lines. Smart and calculating, she finds it easy to steer these self-absorbed people. She makes suggestions, puts herself in their paths, allows them to make assumptions, until her presence and influence seem to have been there all along. Her bosses, taking sudden notice of the company she’s keeping, promote her—a move which grants her other assumptions and privileges. Soon she has insinuated herself into the very heart of the Kyte family, burrowing in for good like a well-dressed parasite.

The novel is a strong debut for Harriet Lane. Part Gothic romance, part black comedy, it reads like a weightier The Devil Wore Prada, but with a real devil and a sinister ending. It’s unsettling how easy it is for Lane’s Frances to control these people, and just as unsettling is how she convinces the reader that they almost deserve what’s coming to them. This is a crime novel in which the crimes are psychological, and the main difference between the perpetrator and her victims is her unfeeling self-awareness about beating down others to get to the top.

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