A couple of years ago, I remember seeing Alys, Always by Harriet Lane in our local supermarket. I picked it up, looked at it and put it back down. It was in the chart, at the supermarket, it couldn’t possibly be that good. Oh, what a judgemental so-and-so I was. Soon though, people I trusted were talking about it on Twitter. Why hadn’t I bought it? I thought. Eventually I ordered a copy and it’s been on my TBR ever since. However, when I saw Lane had a second novel coming out, I decided it was my opportunity to see what she’d got.
Her is the story of two women, Nina and Emma, who alternate in telling their stories. Nina begins:
It’s her. I’m almost sure of it.
It’s clear from the offset that Nina knows Emma and seeing her affects her greatly:
The sensation of it, of finding her there in front of me after all this time, is almost overwhelmingly powerful: like panic, or passion. I feel my hands curl into fists. I’m very conscious now of my lungs filling with air, and then releasing it.
Nina lives a solidly middle-class life. Her teenage daughter, Sophie, attends the local private school; her second husband Charles is an architect who designed their second home in France; her father is a celebrated composer, and Nina herself is an artist.
However, it’s not long before she’s helped herself to Emma’s wallet and is nipping round to give it back to her.
Emma and Nina couldn’t be more different:
I stand there in the doorway, with a stained tea towel over my shoulder, ketchup on my jeans, and (though I don’t find this out till later) flour in my hair, and I look at her and just for a second, I recognise her, her life; and I want it so much, really, that it hurts.
Emma is pregnant with her second child. Her toddler, Christopher, is a handful and Emma’s felt herself – the woman who used to work in TV – disappear under laundry and shopping whilst her husband Ben’s star rises as he takes advantage of the positions vacated by Emma and women like her. Emma’s so harassed and vulnerable to the attentions of a glamorous, seemingly carefree woman like Nina, that it’s easy for the smart, manipulative Nina to ease her way into Emma’s life.
Some visitors spectate. They stand there at the edge of the room, smiling and chatting as I rush around with carrot sticks and J-cloths, and I know deep down they’re enjoying seeing me reduced to this…she notices what needs doing, and she does it: quietly, without ostentation or apology. While I’m flapping about…she fills up the kettle and drops the dirty plates in the dishwasher.
It’s not long before Sophie’s arranging to babysit for Emma and Emma’s inviting Nina and Charles over for dinner. All the while, Nina hints to the reader about something that’s happened in the past, while Emma fails to recognise this woman she knew years earlier. All we can do is watch as the secret is revealed and the consequences are played out.
What makes Her special is the way Lane uses the dual narrative. Rather than simply tell the story from two characters’ points of view, moving the action along as the perspective shifts, she tells the same story from two sides, interspersed with moments from each of them that move the plot on. If this sounds boring, reread the last quotation I selected, which is from Emma’s perspective, and then read this, from Nina’s:
When she’s wiping the table and the floor, I fill the kettle and switch it on, and then I collect plates and stack them in the dishwasher. Christopher watches me without curiosity. ‘And what’s your name?’ I ask him, and then I ruffle his hair, and I have the pleasure of feeling him twist away from my hand, objecting to my gesture. ‘Oh, isn’t he a poppet? They’re so delicious when they’re this age.’
Emma didn’t mention Nina speaking to Christopher and it’s these details that we see but the other character doesn’t that builds our anticipation and leaves us dreading Nina’s next move but unable to look away.
What’s Lane got then? She’s got style – in terms of plotting, sentence structure and language; she’s got the mettle to attempt and execute perfectly a parallel dual narrative, and she’s got a dedicated new reader in me.
Thanks to Weidenfeld & Nicholson for the review copy.