Alys, Always was chosen by my very small book group, and on the surface at least it promised much. I reached a point, however, when the big moment was long overdue and I had to accept there is no big surprise, no major twist. So, everything fell a little flat, and what I was left with was an unreliable narrator, and some oddly manipulative behaviour from a central character I was probably supposed to get chills about – but didn’t. It all felt a bit thin and insubstantial. I appreciated the subtlety of Harriet Lane’s storytelling, and the writing is good too – however as this is purported to be a psychological thriller (I know, why do I read them I never get on with them do I? – two words book group) it needed one killer punch – and we don’t get it. Actually, I think calling Alys, Always a psychological thriller is very mis-leading.
The beginning is definitely the best part – as I said it promises so much, and I settled in for a good bit of escapist reading, I knew so many other people had enjoyed it.
“I’ve taken the right fork out of Imberly, past the white rectory with the stile. The road opens up briefly between wide exposed fields before it enters the forest. In summer, I always like this part of the drive: the sudden, almost aquatic chill of the green tunnel, the sense of shade and stillness. It makes me think of Milton’s water nymph, combing her hair beneath the glassy cool translucent wave. But at this time of year, at this time of day, it’s just another sort of darkness. Tree trunks flash by monotonously. The road slides a little under my tyres so I cut my speed right back, glancing down to check on the instrument panel, the bright red and green and gold dials that tell me everything’s fine; and then I look back up and I see it, just for a second, caught in the moving cone of light. It’s nothing, but it’s something. A shape through the trees, a sort of strange illumination up ahead on the left, a little way off the road.”
Frances is a thirty-something editor on the books pages of The Questioner – the kind of person others don’t much notice. One winter evening while driving back from a visit to her parents, Frances comes upon the aftermath of a car accident, and Frances hears the last words of the lone driver. The victim of the accident was Alys Kyte, and just her voice is enough to tell Frances what kind of world she is a part of. Following the accident, Alys’ family make contact with Frances in a bid to find closure, two adult children, the youngest recently started at university, and a well-known novelist husband Laurence. Theirs is a world of graceful privilege, the Kytes are at the centre of a world Frances is very aware of being outside of. Meeting the Kytes opens up a world of tantalising possibilities for Frances.
Slowly Frances begins to build relationships with the Kyte family, beginning with Polly, the daughter who is having problems at college. Frances manipulates Polly first, acting as confidant and offering advice, before later and yes inevitably moving in on her bereaved father.
Soon Frances’s life begins to change, both personally and professionally – the more she sees of the Kytes the more she changes and she rather like it. She has no intention of letting it go – why shouldn’t she be as big a part of this world as Alys was? Frances, watches, she gets to know the Kyte family and their hangers on – she sees where their weaknesses are and where she can wheedle her way in. To be honest aspects of Frances’s manipulation are well done. She takes her time, nothing is rushed – and that felt realistic I liked the sense of time plodding on, things changing slowly, almost imperceptibly, Frances altering under the very noses of those around her.
“I listen to Catriona making a joke about the host of a reality TV show, the line of her asymmetric 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 farthest. 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 that they say and the things that they leave unsaid.”
Unfortunately, I didn’t find anything very remarkable in the story – well that’s fine – I’m not a reader known for my love of plot driven narratives, so that in itself need not be a problem for me. However, the characters are not explored as deftly as I would have liked and Frances’s motivations don’t feel entirely authentic. She is anxious to escape the narrowness of her parents lives, which are portrayed well.
“This is the house where I grew up, and it means nothing to me, just as I mean nothing to it. There’s no sense when I’m here of being safe or understood. If anything, this is the place where I feel most alone, most unlike everyone else. I learned to talk and walk here; I sat at the dining-room table painstakingly crayoning letters on sugar paper; I sowed mustard and cress upon thick wet layers of kitchen roll; I came down on Christmas mornings and received dolls and roller skates and bikes and, as time went on, book tokens and jeans that I’d picked out myself; and I lay on my stomach on the lawn underneath the elder tree, reading and reading; and then I moved away, and it was as if I’d never lived here at all.”
Visiting her parents in their slightly suffocating home, she is irritated by her mother’s anxious need to impress the neighbours – and yet she hasn’t really anything to escape from. Frances has her independence, her own flat, a job, she admires the money and easy luxury of the Kyte family – of course their world is attractive. However, Frances’s character isn’t revealed in enough detail to make her behaviour believable.
Oh dear, I really didn’t set out to write this kind of review – and then this happened. Perhaps I missed something, it’s a book a lot of other people have really enjoyed, and so I am very disappointed, I had expected to really like it. Harriet Lane’s writing is good, which is why I have included the quotes that I have – I liked the tone and subtlety, the observational nature of Lane’s writing – the novel is very readable – and I can understand why so many people have liked it so much, it just didn’t quite work for me.