This concise novel of quiet obsession is plastered with quotes from critics comparing it to Patricia Highsmith, Ruth Rendell and Daphne Du Maurier. That’s a daunting triumvirate to live up to for Harriet Lane, but Alys, Always quickly sucks you into its chilly psychological drama. After witnessing the aftermath of a traffic accident involving the titular Alys, narrator and protagonist Frances Thorne inveigles herself into the life of Alys’s husband, a respected author, and their children.
The success of the novel is due in large part to the voice of Frances, a darkly complex literary creation. She may be a downtrodden newspaper books pages sub-editor who’s ‘pale, nondescript, as dull as my clothes’ yet Frances demonstrates burgeoning powers of manipulation and casts a cold eye on friends, rivals and family. Her suburban mother has a ‘deep-seated fear of vulgarity, as if it might suddenly overpower her in a dark alley’, while the London literary crowd and their privileged offspring are skewered with gleefully mordant phrases. It’s an assured debut that shows flashes of the suspense, bleak humour and cold psychological insight of her literary forebears.