Tuesday 23 September 2014

Her by Harriet Lane (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2014): Book Review, Signed First Edition

Following on from last week's post about a British first edition of The Blunderer, Patricia Highsmith's second novel (under her own name), I thought I'd take a look at one or two other first editions of sophomore novels by female authors, starting with a book by a writer who cites Highsmith's work as an influence on her own:

Her, by Harriet Lane, published in hardback by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2014, which makes it that rarest of things on Existential Ennui, a new book! (Relatively speaking; it came out in June.) The dust jacket design is uncredited, but taken in combination with the case design:

which is a reversed-out treatment of the jacket title on a bright blue printed PLC – as opposed to the more usual coloured arlin – and the bright yellow endpapers, it's a simple but very striking and effective design overall. Additionally, this particular copy is quite special:

It's signed by the author on the title page, and dated pre-publication – much like my first edition of Lane's 2012 debut, Alys, Always, a quietly brilliant novel which wound up as one of my top ten books of 2013 – hence why I decided to secure a similarly adorned first of Lane's latest. And I'm glad I did; for while Her isn't quite on a par with Alys, Always, it's still slyly engaging, the narrative alternating – and sometimes overlapping – chapter by chapter between the (first person present tense) accounts of thirtysomething London middle(ish) class types Emma and Nina, the former ground down by motherhood and a typically useless husband, the latter wafting seemingly effortlessly through life – a career as an artist, a wealthy architect husband – and yet harbouring a secret grudge against Emma. The nature of that grudge is only made explicit towards the novel's shattering climax; prior to that point it's a guessing game as to why Nina is inveigling herself into Emma's life: to what ultimate and likely nefarious purpose?

The reviews of Her – the reviews in newspapers, I mean; the reviews on the books blogs I've seen (er, like this one...) are as earnestly hamfisted as one would expect – have been largely positive, although this Telegraph one reckons the novel gets "bogged down in slow domesticity". Actually for me that "slow domesticity" is key to the book's success: I found Lane's detailing of Emma's loss of sense of self in the face of the ceaseless demands of her baby girl and toddler boy almost more absorbing than Nina's Machiavellian machinations, although that could be because I have a one-year-old daughter myself.

And something else I was struck by, as with Alys, Always, was a parallel with Patricia Highsmith's work. It's not as pronounced here as it is in Lane's debut, which was clearly influenced by The Talented Mr. Ripley, but even so, in the way in which Emma and Nina become fascinated by one another, there are similarities with how Highsmith often has two protagonists – male in her case – fixate on one another, and switches the narrative back and forth accordingly: see Walter and Kimmel in The Blunderer, Rydal and Chester in The Two Faces of January, Tom and Jonathan in Ripley's Game, and so forth.

Anyway, there are ulterior motives and Machiavellian manoeuvring at play in the next sophomore novel I'll be looking at, a book which I only became aware of in the wake of last year's Jones-Day family holiday to Suffolk.


  1. As much as I liked Alys, Always, I thought Her showed a considerable leap in Lane's skill set. Her was deep (all that slow domesticity stuff gave the two women tremendous depth and is typically the kind of thing that is either glossed over or turned into shopping/consumption porn in many novels that bother to deal with the domestic lives the characters) and gripping. So much of the backstory of Nina and Emma was only slowly revealed that I was desperate to read on and I speculated wildly between chapters as to who it was that was going to get revenge on the other and what really for. I'm always a sucker for novels with Art and Artists in them, too. And in the end, of course, wow. Utterly devastating. I'm guessing American readers are not going to like the ending. Lane is very brave to end it that way.

    I thought everything about Her was superior to Alys, Always. Her was like two trains on single track speeding towards each other. And Alys, Always was a good story about some trains, the train yard, signals, and track maintenance. I can't imagine how good her third book is going to be.

    And don't keep us waiting to long about this next post about another sophomore novel - I've scoured all the posts about that trip to Suffolk looking for clues and have come up empty.

  2. Said post is up now, BG.

    I'm not sure why I didn't respond to Her as positively as I did to Alys, Always. I think it's probably me rather than, er, Her: there's a mystery at the heart of Her – what was it that Emma did to Nina in the past (or rather what Nina thinks Emma did to her) – and I'm just not that keen on mysteries. Which I suppose is a bit odd, given that I read a lot of crime fiction, although I guess it's telling that my favourite crime writers – Patricia Highsmith, Richard Stark, Elmore Leonard – don't really deal in mysteries.

  3. I love a good mystery. I guess we all have reading idiosyncrasies. In my case, the setting of a novel can have an inordinate influence on how I react to it. I recently read Patricia Highsmith's The Tremor of Forgery, your favorite non-Ripley. And I was so excited and thought I was going to be in for a great read but it was set in Tunisia. And I generally do not like that part of the world. And it put a real damper on my enjoyment of what should have been a very good book. In many ways A Suspension of Mercy, another Highsmith I recently read, is an inferior book to The Tremor of Forgery but I much preferred the English setting of ASOM (which was partially set in your patch). (I live around the corner from the Tunisian Embassy and usually nonsense like that inclines me like something - but not in this case.

  4. That's interesting. I'm not sure I've had that kind of adverse reaction to a setting, but I've certainly responded positively to novels set in and around places I recognise, especially the Lewes area – Anthony Price's The Alamut Ambush springs to mind. Shame about The Tremor of Forgery; I really do believe it's a great book.