It’s no surprise to learn that first-time author Harriet Lane is a fan of Barbara Vine, Patricia Highsmith and those “books where you realise you’re not quite sure what’s going on—as a reader I find that so thrilling”. Although her début Alys, Always is not quite a psychological crime novel in the vein of Vine or Highsmith—there’s no crime for a start—it’s a riveting read, with a narrator who is not as she seems.
Alys, Always begins with the narrator, thirtysomething Frances Thorpe, driving home one night and coming across the aftermath of an accident—a solitary car has skidded on a patch of ice and come off the road. Stopping to help, Frances calls for an ambulance, and comforts the female driver, Alys, who later dies in hospital.
When the bereaved family make contact with Frances, desperate to learn more about Alys’ last moments, at first she declines to meet them. But then she discovers Alys’ husband is the Booker Prize-winning writer Lawrence Kyte, and she changes her mind. For Frances works on the books pages of the Questionner as a lowly sub-editor - clever and capable, but for the most part ignored by the paper’s grand literary editor Mary Pym.
Through her contact with the Kytes—Lawrence and grown-up twentysomething children Polly and Edward—Frances catches a tantalising glimpse of another way of living; a privileged, monied and hitherto closed world. But it gradually becomes apparent that the seemingly mild-mannered, colourless Frances is the sort of person capable of taking an opportunity when she sees one. Exactly what the opportunity is, and where it will lead, emerges little by little over the course of the novel.
The plot may be revealed slowly to readers, but it came to the author in a flash. Lane was watching her husband play football with their two young children on holiday, when inspiration struck and she sketched out a plan for the entire book on three pages of a small notebook. Back home and fired up, she completed the first draft of Alys, Always in just 11 weeks, albeit working flat out: “No laundry, all takeaways, I didn’t do any homework supervision, I was just chucking the children in the bath and jumping on my bed with the laptop,” she says with a laugh.
At just over 220 pages, Alys, Always is very tightly written—“I think it’s something to do with the fact that I wrote it so quickly, and because I had the plot down I knew exactly where I was going next,” says Lane. “There’s an urgency to Frances, there’s a sort of hurry to her, not that you would know it if you met her, but she wants to get places. I wanted that urgency to come through so it was a combination of writing it in a great rush, with the confidence of knowing where it was going.”
The act of writing the novel also restored Lane’s confidence in a more fundamental way. A successful career as a freelance journalist (after stints as features editor at Tatler and as a staff writer on the Observer) was put on hold in 2008 when, out of the blue, she started to experience severe problems with her sight. Suddenly it became “impossible” to manage her career alongside the emergency doctor’s appointments. “A fairly wretched experience,” she says, “one of those things that just comes out of nowhere.”
Unable to continue the journalism, and desperately missing it, she found a creative writing class close to her home in north London. “I really had to nerve myself to do it,” she says now. “It felt like one of the scariest things I’d ever done. It’s not really about anyone teaching you how to write. For me it was about being given permission to think differently. As soon as I started writing, I started to feel happier.”
Reflecting on how much writing the novel meant to her, she says: “It had nothing at all to do with my everyday life, which involved (and still does) lots of anxiety, doctors’ waiting rooms and nasty drugs. It was a chance to escape all of that, to inhabit someone else’s mind and world—someone who has the opportunity to shape her own destiny. So there’s a bit of wishful thinking in that, I guess.
“I’ve lost so much because of this autoimmune thing—not just some sight, but a really enjoyable career and a confident sense of the future—so I’m really glad something positive has come out of it, too. [I was] relieved to find there was something else up my sleeve. In that regard I do feel pretty lucky.”
Alys, Always is out today, published by Orion.