Her, by Harriet Lanem book review: Slow-burn tension in a split narrative of revenge

 

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The Independent Culture

Harriet Lane, author of Alys, Always, specialises in scheming women. Her new novel of psychological suspense asks how you can tell when your friend is really your enemy. Emma Nash, pregnant, struggling with a toddler, believes Nina Bremner to be a kind stranger when she turns up on Emma’s doorstep in genteel north London to return a lost wallet. She has no idea that Nina spotted her in the street earlier, recognised her from an undisclosed incident many years before, and stole the wallet from her bag as an excuse to make contact.

The structure of this novel is both its strength and its weakness, for what happens next is told from Emma and Nina’s alternating points of view. On the plus side this conveys valuable insight, but it also means that some of the same events are described twice. The author is so skilled at edge-of-the-seat suspense, however, that even repeated accounts of mundane chores acquire tension.

Emma is touched and grateful, if a little overawed, by the way that Nina proceeds to take her under her wing, rescuing Emma’s little boy one day after he wanders off, inviting her to lunch, babysitting for her. Only the reader sees how Nina is manipulating Emma, inflicting little cruelties on the young family, worming her way into a position of trust.

She’s a clever creation, this villainess, like a deadly spider waiting to pounce. A moderately successful landscape artist, Nina is married to her second husband, the urbane, older Charles. On the surface she is poised, elegant, her life under perfect control, her only apparent source of anxiety being Sophie, her narcissistic 17-year-old daughter. Underneath the cool exterior, however, she’s a seething mass of resentment and fixates on Emma as the cause.

Emma, her unwitting victim, is not Nina’s type at all. Through her we are given a vivid portrait of modern middle-class motherhood. She’s the same age as Nina, fortyish, but her life is so different. She and her husband, Ben, live on a shoestring and she looks back wistfully to her days working in television as she copes with dirty nappies, toddler tears and stressful visits to the park.

Emma has a pleasing eye for social satire. A weekend visit to her house-proud  in-laws is a marvellously funny setpiece, as is a dinner party with an unfortunate mix of guests. Although their voices are usually sufficiently distinct, occasionally Emma’s takes on a note of cynicism too similar to Nina’s.

While Nina paints intense abstract scenes of Kent and broods enigmatically on her traumatic past there, her parents’ divorce, her subsequent unhappy early adulthood, she plots revenge.

Her invitation to the Nashes to stay in Nina’s father’s holiday home in France is gratefully received by Emma, but Ben is right to be suspicious. One unanswered question keeps the reader gripping that seat-edge: what on earth did Emma do to upset Nina all those years ago?

The answer and the novel’s outcome do not disappoint.

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