Alys, Always, By Harriet Lane

How to crash the London literary scene

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The Independent Culture

Frances Thorpe, a sub-editor on the books pages of the Questioner, is one of those quiet women it's advisable to watch. A thirty-something living alone in a shabby north London flat, she's stuck in a job that she thinks is drudgery, and her social life is going nowhere. So when fate presents an opportunity, she takes it.

One winter's night on a country road, she chances upon a car wreck and witnesses the dying moments of a stranger. Later she's shocked to discover that the dead woman was Alys, the wife of the acclaimed Booker Prize-winning novelist Laurence Kyte. The grieving family, in search of closure, ask to meet Frances. She visits their elegant Highgate home and glimpses a world of privilege and entitlement that she's always been shut out of. Laurence, who is charismatic and still handsome in middle age, appears comforted by her easy lie about his wife's dying words. The Kytes' twenty-something son Teddy is absorbed in his narcissistic girlfriend, but the Kytes' daughter, Polly, a drama student, latches on to Frances in a rather pathetic but charming way. An idea begins to form in Frances's mind.

This chilling and accomplished debut is in classic Ruth Rendell territory. Crucially, the author knows the trick of what to leave out, and of how to tantalise. Manipulative, cynical and detached Frances always conceals her true purpose, and never allows the reader to run ahead. Gradually, her plan unfurls.

It's her friendship with Polly that she works on first. This somewhat unlikely relationship is possibly the weakest point of the narrative, but we quickly move on. Frances's formidable boss, Mary, the literary editor, is impressed by Frances's developing friendship with the Kytes and pushes prestigious commissions her way. Frances finds herself admitted to the inner sanctum of London literary life, about which the author, who knows whereof she writes, is most amusing. All Frances needed, it seems, were the right connections. But she wants more.

Although it's a suspense story, Alys, Always is paradoxically a book about patience. Frances waits for subtle nudges of people or situations to bear fruit; for circumstances to alter in her favour. Her strengths are tact and discernment. Meanwhile, she, too, changes, grows kinder. She observes the passing of the seasons, portrays London and the Kytes' Suffolk home, in lovely, sensuous prose. And as we warm to her, so we come to fear that she'll stumble and that everything she's worked for will crash down.