Frances Thorpe is a quiet, unassuming thirty-something, living alone in London with a steady if unambitious job as a sub-editor at small newspaper The Questioner, in Alys, Always, the debut novel from Harriet Lane. This is a subtle thriller, a sly mystery that leaves nothing to chance, and nor does Frances. For she is the first to arrive at the scene of a car accident, where Alys Kyte is about to breathe her last. Frances later seizes the opportunity passing her way, to meet the family including Alys’s famous author husband Laurence, and elegant, well-educated and rich offspring Teddy and Polly.
Where this veers away from a straightforward drama though is in Frances’ very astute assessments of the social situations she finds herself in, and her extremely subtle manipulations of the people around her. From her lowly position as sub-editor, she can see that the opportunity of meeting the famous author and moving in his circles would almost be painful to pass up, so she takes her ambition in two hands and strives to become “part of the family”. She cultivates a friendship with Polly, who seems the most vulnerable and suggestible of the family, and is not far wrong in her initial assessment. But always there is an undercurrent of stealth and secrecy. Hints that Frances is researching the family, that she is paying scrupulous attention to what she lets slip, and that she is not really all that she presents to the world, gives the reader the sense of more to come.
And of course more does come, but thankfully despite Frances’ tendency to do things that really creeped me out, she does seem to really feel for the family as she works her way into their world. And as she entwines herself tighter it is hard to say that she is not helping them as much as she is helping herself. This novel is really quite as careful and sly as Frances herself is portrayed, only ever hinting at what Frances’ goals and motivations are, and never relinquishing control to the reader’s imagination at all. One to make you think.
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