In Harriet Lane’s debut novel Alys, Always, the reader is introduced to the narrator Frances Thorpe—a thirty something copy editor for a failing London magazine who stumbles on a car accident one night when returning home from visiting her parents. Frances’s actions in the beginning of the novel mimic those of an innocent do-gooder—a person who stops at the sight of an accident, and discovers a victim hidden by the darkness, buried beneath the crushed metal of her vehicle. Frances attempts to comfort the victim, who later introduces herself as Alys, while waiting on the ambulance to arrive. Frances is unaware of Alys’s injuries, and sits with her during her final moments of life—unable to do anything to save her. After Alys dies, Frances returns to her home, haunted by the woman’s death. Once home she takes stock of her surroundings and comments, “You’re not so badly off, are you?” convincing herself that her basic needs have been fulfilled.
The narrator’s actions at the beginning of the story are deeply misleading. Frances is not a genuine, compassionate person, or a Mother Teresa type. She isn’t flooded with feelings of humility and selflessness. Instead, Frances is methodical, cunning, and as the layers of her persona are peeled away, the reader is made aware of her true nature. Frances loathes her mundane life, and she struggles to find an opportunity to sever herself from the reality of her abysmal existence.
After the accident, Frances is pressured by the police to speak with Alys’s surviving family in an attempt to offer them some form of solace. Initially, she is uninterested in participating in the meeting—as she is unaware of how it will prove to be productive for her. It isn’t until Frances discovers that Alys was the wife of Laurence Kyte, a well-known British writer, that she changes her mind and becomes motivated to meet with the family. During the meeting, Frances lies to the family about Alys’s last words, and uses this deceit to agitate their vulnerable emotions. Frances portrays herself as a confidante for Alys in the moments before her death—giving the illusion that the two connected—and attempts to cultivate a bond with the family. It is at this point in the novel that the reader begins to notice the negative aspects of Frances’s personality, and it becomes clear that Frances is anything but innocent.
After meeting the family, Frances decides to attend Alys’s memorial service, and uses her newfound link with the Kyte family to bolster her status at work. By exploiting their developing relationship, Frances catches the attention of her boss who is not only interested in Kyte’s recent novel, but is also intrigued by Frances’s intimate knowledge of the family. By pretending to be a long time acquaintance—Frances positions herself as a social asset to the magazine, and receives a taste of how her life will improve through her affiliation with the Kyte family.
Lane uses the character of Frances to expose the magnetism of social elevation. This isn’t a particularly complex notion—as many stories have been written detailing how the less fortunate, or socially inept, have clawed and connived in hopes of gaining the livelihood of those for whom they are envious. However, what makes Lane’s story fascinating is how Frances sets out to infiltrate the lives of the Kytes. As Frances struggles to maintain her connection with the Kyte family, she uses the grief and vulnerability of Laurence Kyte’s daughter, to manipulate her, and successfully forges a friendship with the twenty something woman. This unlikely union is the first intimation of how deeply Frances is willing to submerge herself into Kyte’s lives, and highlights the parallel between the characters of Frances and Polly, by revealing how each woman deals with their hidden desires.
The friendship between Frances and Polly provides an interesting layer to Lane’s story—as Polly is surrounded by fortune, and able to achieve whatever she wants. She is the epitome of a spoiled rich girl, a young woman whom uses her father’s affections for her benefit. As Frances observes the ways in which Polly abuses the opportunities made available to her by her father’s status, and money, we witness the contrast between a person who is controlled by fleeting desires, and a person who uses their ambitions as a method to dominate others. Lane focuses her story around Frances’s mission to improve her social status, and uses this as a means to expose the consequences of a person motivated by selfishness. By doing this, she provides the readers with an elaborate tale of greed, and outlines the potential dangers that arise when we prevent someone from getting what they want.
As the story further develops it becomes evident that Frances does not simply hope to gain a piece of the Kyte lifestyle; instead she plots to become a permanent fixture. Frances’s persistence in breeching the family’s inner circle is what heightens the suspense of the story—as the reader watches her vacillate between having her agenda exposed, and attempting to fill the void Alys left behind in her untimely death.
The imagery Lane incorporates in her writing speaks to the contrasting elements present in both Frances’s life, and the Kyte's lives. As Frances trails from the shadows of her world and into a circle dominated by money and power, Lane uses the setting to further connect the reader with the disaster that is Frances’s uninspiring life. At one point in the novel, Polly visits Frances’s after she is too drunk to return home. Frances surveys her home before Polly arrives, and notes the “dispiriting mess: the drifts of old newspapers, the undercoated shelves, the Rothko print in a clip-frame propped by the radiator” as well as the mismatched furniture that litters her home. Lane uses Frances’s belongings to reveal the depths of her normalcy, and provide the reader with an understanding of why she is desperate to elevate herself socially, and why she is specifically drawn to the Kyte’s rich and fruitful lifestyle.
As Frances attempts to solidify her connection with Polly and her family, she uses her visits to their vacation home to fuel her fantasy, and wonders how her life would be if she were Alys. Frances roams through Alys’s home, surveying her surroundings, and wondering what it would mean if all of Alys’s belongings were hers. Lane writes, “Just for a moment, as I stand by the sink peeling a long rosy spiral from the yellow flesh of an apple, I think about all of this and what it means to me”, revealing that Frances not only wants to embody Alys—her end game is to steal her life.
Alys, Always published by Scribner is a quick read—only 224 pages. However, this is not to suggest that Lane’s story lacks any substance. Alys, Always explores the irresistible temptation of ambition—how it corrupts absolutely—and it adeptly explores the dark corners of the human psyche.
Harriet Lane has worked as an editor and writer at Tatler and the Observer. She has also written for the Guardian, the Telegraph, andVogue. She lives in London, England. Alys, Always is her first novel.
See more about her at: http://www.harrietlane.co.uk/#
Cherita Harrell is a Fiction Editor for Glassworks Literary Magazine. She is a Writing Arts major at Rowan University, and plans to enroll in a Creative Writing - MFA program after graduation. Cherita plays with gas masks for a living, is a self-proclaimed foodie, and believes there should be a patch for writer's block, so she can finally complete her first novel.