‘An elevated beach read’ – Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

aahlHow many of us have been driving in the winter nights and felt the back tyres kick out a little? Gripping the wheel a little tighter and possibly reciting a mantra to yourself you end up saving the car and continue on your way. But, it is very easy to picture your car skidding into the ditch, with only the brake lights telling by-passers that you are in trouble. This is the very striking way that the novel “Alys, Always” opens. It is not a flash bang start but it is a very quite dignified event. How would you feel if you were in this situation? What would you do? How do you think you would act in the days following? From this novel these are the daunting questions that have stayed with me even after finishing.

Alys, Always is a novel about the life of a 30-something woman called Frances Thorpe, however the author makes this very basic piece of information unimportant. This is rather a strange thing to do to the main character, but as the novel progresses it becomes apparent why this ploy is utilised. Harriet Lane lulls you into imagining Frances as a decent and sensitive person. In the time following a car crash all Frances can do to help is to speak to the woman trapped inside damaged car. The conversation had could be overheard in any shop or cafe in the country. “I’ve got myself into a bit of a mess,” she says. “My husband is going to be so cross. He had the car cleaned on Friday.” But then shortly afterwards the quietness is described so beautifully and accurately that you can feel the loneliness and helplessness that Frances feels. It is a very haunting way to open a novel, and it works for me at least.

This novel is written in the first person and allows us to see what exactly Frances is thinking throughout the novel. This was an interesting choice because I couldn’t help wondering if Frances would be a more likeable character if it was written from the third person. Frances is a complex person who I think fundamentally is a decent person, but with the people who are in her orbit she has learnt that using all connections is essential. One little lie and she is allowed to access the life that she wishes for and the one she may not be granted to if it were not for the little lie.

Secondary to Frances’ story is a family and the dynamics it possess. While this family may have the security and trappings that money can secure you are made to wonder if they are any better off? Many novels have commented on this situation but in this novel it isn’t discussed within the family and by default the family wealth and its apparent removal from some parts of society aren’t commented upon.

The need of Frances to be included is strong and to ensure it she can be somewhat brutal in her methods. How many people will justify “a means to an ends” without really thinking about the means employed.  Ms. Lane does not answer this question and doesn’t seem to bias any readers decision on it but she plants the idea so quietly that you don’t necessarily realise what the outcome will be until the end.

Any Cop?: Alys, Always is Harriet Lane’s debut novel and the informal style of writing allows the reader to have a sense of being present within the story. The plot trips along at a steady pace which will keep the reader engaged. But if you do not like a “beach read” this is probably not the book for you, even though this is an elevated type of “beach read”.

Margaret O’ Toole


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