Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

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Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Leggett
Reviewed by Robin Leggett
Summary: Chilling story of one woman's ambition to mix with the literary elite. Funny, psychologically complex and superbly observed. This is really a superb debut novel.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: February 2012
Publisher: Phoenix
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9781780220017

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Harriet Lane's debut novel, Alys, Always garnered a raft of favourable coverage from the professional reviewers when it was first published in hardback. Concerning, as it does, a young woman who works as a sub-editor in a publishing company and a Booker-winning novelist, there is always the chance that this was due to the reviewers merely recognizing the world that is portrayed. This view is unfounded though - it is a superbly drawn, frequently very funny, and often psychologically chilling story of ambition and class differences. It thoroughly deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it.

Alys, Always is one of those books that the less you know about the plot coming into it, the better your reading experience of it will be. To give a taster though, the narrator is Frances, the quiet, loner of a sub-editor at a publishing house. She's efficient and good at her job but is irritated by those in higher positions who seem to have gained their positions on the back of who they know rather than their abilities or hard work. When Frances is driving back to London from visiting her parents one weekend, she is the first on the scene to a tragic road accident. The driver of the stricken car is non-other than Alys, wife of a famous, prize-winning novelist. This event allows Frances access to the world of the famous novelist, Laurence, as well as his grown-up children, particularly the drama school drop out Polly. It's a life of privilege and glamour that Frances has only dreamed of, and dreamed of it she certainly has. Frances is not quite the quiet, mousey person everyone, reader included, has imagined.

Genre-wise, the book is classed as a psychological thriller - but the weighting is very much on the psychological side of that phrase. It's more of a slow build than a thriller as such as we learn more and more about Frances's ambitions and dark side.

Her observations of the rich, in-set are astute and often amusing, but it is in Frances's portrayal of her depressingly middle-class parents that Lane, and Frances, are at their most hilarious. However, this isn't just humour for the sake of it, it is fundamental to Frances's ambition to escape the middle of the road existence and the run of the mill life of her elder sister. There are shades of Alan Bennett, that master of observation of English middle-class mediocrity, in some of Lane's descriptions of Frances's mother, from whose kitchen the food rolls out in marshalled surges, like Bomber Command.

To say any more about the story risks ruining the joys of discovery for the reader. Suffice to say that this is a little gem of a book - and your jaw will get a good work out as it drops further and further as you discover more about quiet Frances. Chilling, funny, psychologically complex and beautifully observed.

If you enjoyed this then the Booker-winning The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes will undoubtedly appeal to you as well. We also have a review of Her by Harriet Lane.

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Buy Alys, Always by Harriet Lane at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Alys, Always by Harriet Lane at Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Alys, Always by Harriet Lane at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Alys, Always by Harriet Lane at


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