Tuesday 22 January 2013

Harriet Lane, Alys, Always (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2012; Signed Edition), Patricia Highsmith, and Tom Ripley

As with C. J. Sansom's Dominion, I became interested in this next book as a result of reading a few reviews at the tail end of last year:

Alys, Always by Harriet Lane, published in hardback – under a lovely dust jacket designed by Carrie May – by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in February 2012 – which, if you're paying attention at the back of the class, might beg the question, how come I only read those aforementioned reviews at the end of 2012...? Although if you're sitting at the front of the class with the rest of the exceptionally bright children, you'll probably already have worked out that it wasn't the reviews of the hardback edition that I noticed but the reviews of the paperback edition, which was published by Phoenix in December (tick, VG, clever kids; dullards at the back see me after). Of course, awkward bugger that I am, the paperback wasn't good enough for me – and neither was the regular hardback first edition. No – I decided that nothing less than a signed first edition would do, and so went and bought the only one I could find for sale online:

Which has been signed and dated pre-publication. And I suspect in years to come it'll be one to treasure; Lane's debut novel, Alys, Always has been rapturously received by critics, more than a few of whom have pointed to Patricia Highsmith as an influence, especially Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels – which was why my curiosity was piqued by those reviews I saw. Turns out Lane is indeed a fan of Highsmith's work – all the best people are, I find – and there are certainly echoes of The Talented Mr. Ripley in particular in Alys, Always. Not so much stylistically – the novel is written in the first person, present tense (where Highsmith stuck rigidly to third and past), and Lane is a lighter writer (hey!) than Highsmith – more in the way it centres on a manipulative type inveigling themselves into an unsuspecting circle of family and friends. In Talented it was Tom inserting himself into, and eventually co-opting, Dickie Greenleaf's life; here it's Frances Thorpe – thirty-something subeditor on the literary section of an ailing newspaper – worming her way into the lives of novelist Laurence Kyte and his children.

One major difference is that unlike Tom Ripley, Frances doesn't actually kill anyone. Instead, at the novel's outset she chances upon the crashed car of Laurence's wife, Alys, who, after a brief, strained conversation, promptly dies on her. Even so, it's the kind of opening one can imagine Highsmith herself entertaining: a coincidence (she was very fond of those) that sets in motion a chain of events largely driven by a scheming loner. For though Frances may not share Tom's murderous tendencies, she does share his outsider's viewpoint, observing the Kytes – not to mention her own family and friends – at a step removed, which in turn allows her to shape and mould their emotions and intuit and almost predict their reactions. She also shares Tom's ultimate aim – a better life for him/herself – and even, in a parallel of the scene in Talented where Tom tries on Dickie's things, drifts about the Kytes' holiday home draped in Alys's shawl and pores over her cookbooks and photo albums.

I don't mean to bang on about Patricia Highsmith – even though I, er, kind of have – but the more you look at Alys, Always, the more Highsmith comes to mind – or at least, to my mind. It's important to note, however, that this isn't imitation on Lane's part: it's inspiration. Lane has a style all her own; she's especially good at evoking an environment in a few lines, and I particularly admire her brevity (the novel clocks in at just over 200 pages, which, in an era of bloated doorstoppers, is refreshing). My learned friend Book Glutton put it best: he identified Alys, Always as being "Highsmithic" – and to my way of thinking, there's no higher praise than that.


  1. Nick, I have never read Patricia Highsmith's novels and I am told, often, that I don't know what I am missing. Your review of Harriet Lane's book gives me a fair idea. I also don't recall reading "first person, present tense" narrative and I wonder what that's like. I suppose it takes getting used to.

  2. I must admit I haven't read many books in first person/present tense – which is how Alys, Always is written, not how Highsmith wrote (she was a third person/past tense, er, person) – but I didn't find it too distracting. A lot of novels are written that way these days, I think – tastes and styles change, I guess. As for Highsmith, I've written quite a bit about her; click on her tag at the bottom of this post, or maybe give my Tom Ripley Reread posts a go, which begin here.

  3. Thanks, Nick. I'll go through both the links. Highsmith is definitely on my list of authors to read.

  4. When I learned that I had finished reading Alys, Always before you, I thought I might pull a Ripley/Thorpe and write a review of the book first and steal all of your readers. But at the time, I was really knackered. And then later, I couldn't be arsed.

    Anyway, I am glad I didn't do it because otherwise I might never have seen your wonderful edition of the book. The American edition has a dreadful dust jacket. If I had known nothing of this book and seen the American dust jacket, I would have judged it by its cover and never read it. I think the quirky UK illustration is perfect for this book.

  5. Couldn't be arsed: now there's a sentiment I can wholeheartedly – or maybe halfheartedly – get behind. I just looked up the US edition jacket – doesn't really do the book justice does it? Whereas Carrie May captures the tone of the novel rather well. Ah well. You should still post a review (if you can be bothered): I'd like to read your thoughts.

  6. I prefer Highsmithian. Has a better rhythm than the choppy Highsmithic.

    I'm off to find a copy of Lane's book. Horrid US edition DJ be damned! (Truth be told about 90% of new books have horrid DJs over here these days.)

    Thanks for uncovering a book I'd never find on my own.