There are few occasions when new ‘friends’ have been thrust into my life. My friendships tend to develop slowly but I stick around (I’m the loyal variety – once I like you, I might be difficult to get rid of). However, I have a handful of friends who, due to circumstances, have come into my life in an immediate and resoundingly permanent way. One day they were strangers, the next they’re on my phone favourites list. This is the topic of Harriet Lane’s debut novel, Alys, Always.
Frances is a thirty-something sub-editor, working on book reviews for a newspaper. She may as well be invisible – her life is dull and empty and her career at a standstill. That changes one winter’s night when she is the first on the scene of a car accident and hears the last words of the driver, Alys Kyte. When Alys’s family makes contact in an attempt to find closure, Frances is given access to their privileged world – Alys was the wife of celebrated author, Laurence Kyte (yes, how perfectly coincidental for sub-editor Frances). Frances pursues a friendship with daughter Polly Kyte, a flighty university drama student, and in doing so gets a toehold in their family life.
The premise of the story was promising – Frances pushing into the Kytes’ lives when they were at their most vulnerable (needless to say, Alys’s death wasn’t without emotional complications, which in turn provided a sub-plot). Yet as a character, Frances was so incredibly lack lustre that I had trouble believing that she would pull off what she intended (essentially going from police witness to a pseudo-replacement for Alys). I needed more Single White Female, more Fatal Attraction. I needed more plotting and scheming. I needed to be in her mind.
Frances’s role in the Kyte family is a tightrope act, best revealed by a question that is asked of her a number of times – “Where did you come from?”. The question generates rare moments of tension for it is asked both endearingly and as an accusation.
“‘Anyway, she’s good at fitting in,’ adds Polly, crossly, in summary. ‘She’s easy to have around. Whereas Honor…’ Ridiculously, my heart leaps as I listen to Polly’s speech, though I know I’ve become a cheap shot, just another installment in an ancient sibling argument.”
But while Frances works hard not to let her guard down – and throws in a few random, malicious acts – the narrative lacks the psychological drama that was needed to pull me along.
2/5 The first few chapters were gripping – it’s a shame that Lane couldn’t sustain the tension for the remainder of the story.
The strongest and most evocative parts of Lane’s writing were around Frances talking about her own mother (who plays a very minor role in the story) –
“I sometimes suspect that, as far as my mother is concerned, the real purpose of family is to ensure she always has something to talk about if she bumps into Mrs Tucker at Tesco.”
“Usually she talks of my childhood as if it’s something that really happened only to her, as if I were only distantly involved.”
And her mother makes cheese straws I love cheese straws.