Guest review: Alys, Always

My friend Anstey Spraggan reviews Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

Keris describes me as a book hater – it’s so not true. It’s more that the older I get, the less time I have left and, frankly, life’s getting too short for bad books. Or, come to that, even ‘just ordinary’ books.

Alys, Always is not an ordinary book – it’s a great book.

Nowadays, if a book doesn’t snare me with the Kindle sample, I won’t buy it. Really, my life is that short. Lane’s debut novel was sufficiently intriguing (and well-written) to have grabbed me hard by the end of the first two chapters.

Our heroine is Frances Thorpe, a desk editor at The Questioner newspaper, and the first witness on the scene following a car accident. There are a series of consequences to Frances being the last person to see the occupant of the car alive; some deliberate, some not so much, some even caused by misplaced kindness. The story evolves by harmless increments into a dramatic cautionary tale.

I deliberated on whether to read this book for two reasons. Firstly, the title made me think it might be a gooey love story when, in fact, it’s very far from that. Once the eponymous Alys is revealed and the story behind the title rolls out, it becomes an utterly fitting headline – I wouldn’t have called it anything else.

The second is that several reviews that I’ve read of Alys, Always refer to it as a thriller. I saw Lane’s book more as a story of human nature red in tooth and claw (with the intricacies of the human condition revealed with an exceptional candour) and as a shrewd assessment of life in a society that stills fails to be classless.

I wasn’t particularly alarmed by Frances’ journey from ‘cuts I’ve been browsing online’ through ‘online research’ on social networking sites (which, deliciously blames Polly for her ‘slack Facebook privacy settings’ as if her lack of thought is at fault rather than Frances). I still wasn’t unduly perturbed when even Frances herself had to categorise her ‘interest’ as ‘internet trawling’. And – here’s the bit I don’t know whether to reveal – I didn’t think that all this made Frances a sociopath or a character in a thriller. I thought it made her plausible and deeply real. I am lucky that the internet was still in its infancy when I left the game of ‘dating’ (so I wasn’t tempted to stalk) but I’ve got friends who’ve done far worse than Frances! It’s true – I really have. And I’m sure Harriet Lane has too.

It is perhaps the air of autobiography that gives this charming story its realism. Lane’s experience in newspapers and magazines lends a depth to the fabulous characters that surround Frances in her newspaper office. The transition from journalism to fiction is not always pulled off easily but Lane adopts a fluid and ornate narrative with ease. When she describes a ‘guest soap’ in Frances’ mother’s house as being ‘as tiny and pearly pink as prawn dim sum’, you know that non-fiction is behind her and a career as a novelist has well and truly begun.

Lane has disguised the real names of her villages but such is the power of her sense of place that I am hankering after a visit to the Suffolk Heritage coastline to cruise the glorious housing stock of Walberswick, Dunwich and Southwold. I will be looking for the people I know I can find there; those with the ‘sense of entitlement’ that Frances is both so impressed and intimidated by. She learns quickly that these are people – even the teenagers – who think that ‘The Wolseley’ rather than Cafe Nero is the kind of place one goes for coffee. These are people who know that they will succeed in life – and that they have the connections to do so.

For me, this story is – on so many levels – a classic cautionary tale. It takes very little effort for Frances to manipulate those around her once she realises how shallow and easily-impressed they are and I, honestly, cannot blame her. Every relationship in her life is affected by the colour that her acquaintance with the bereaved family brings. Her boss breezes in one morning and offers, ‘Cappuccino or latte?’ oblivious to the fact that she has never in seven years, offered Frances a cup of coffee before.

All sorts of opportunities unfold for Frances due to her new connections but the ultimate message of the book is that, whatever the circumstances or the particular events, people never really change. We are who we are – for better or for worse – and that’s who we will stay.