Each of us has experienced those moments, when passing noise and bustle, of feeling removed from what really matters.
You know, those moments of startling clarity, when you are surrounded by stillness, observing the action but separated from it?
Like this, in Frances’ words, in Harriet Lane’s debut novel:
“Every so often, I walk by a café or a cheap restaurant with steamed-up windows, and the sound of coffee machines and cutlery comes out as someone arrives or leaves, and then the door swings shut and the sound dies away.”
And, in the moment which really matters in Frances’ life, she is surrounded by stillness and the action has precipitated her arrival on the scene.
“Opening the car door I pause and lean back in to switch off the radio. The music stops. All I can hear is the wind soughing in the trees, the irregular drip of water onto the bonnet, the steady metronome of the hazard flashers. I shut the door behind me and start to walk, quite quickly, along the track of my headlights, through the damp snag of undergrowth, into the wood.”
She is driving home from her parents’ house and she sees that a car has gone off the road; when she stops to wait at the scene of the accident, she hears nothing, at first, but strains to hear the sound of the emergency vehicles.
But this is not as quiet a scene as it seems; inwardly, and unbeknownst to the reader, there is action unfolding, as Frances evaluates, gauges and predicts.
Without spoiling any specific element of the plot, here is a hint from about 20 pages into the novel:
“I walk back through the slippery streets holding the flowers…I find myself enjoying the conspicuous beauty of my trophy, the glances it attracts and the alternative life it seems to suggest.”
Frances is seduced by the idea of this alternative life. Partly, at least, because her own life is lonely and repetitive.
“A pan-lid sky hangs over London. The forecast is for rain. …I watch the dull-silver ribbons of trains flowing in and out of the station, the slow rotation of cranes over distant building sites. Beyond the cloud, beyond the city, a margin of green – the Surrey hills – is startlingly bathed in sunshine.”
Harriet Lane’s descriptions are succinct and vivid; Frances’ life, her work and relationships, are depicted clearly and credibly. And, even as the character’s motivations grow more complex, her decisions are readily understood.
“I umm and ah for a little, for form’s sake; and then – as if I’m overwhelmed by the expert deployment of charm – I say okay, I’ll do it, I’ll come.”
Frances is an astute observer. She pays attention to detail in her daily work, putting commas in their proper places and meeting a series of deadlines in a stressful environment. And she scans and analyses the people around her with the same acute gaze.
“She doesn’t want wit or insight or affinity or a glimpse of a different sort of life, the sort of thing that most friendships are built on; she just wants company, the reassurance of being looked at, the consolation of not being alone.”
This observation that Frances makes of another character is accurate of that individual, but it’s even more revealing of Frances herself.
And the fact that Harriet Lane expresses it through Frances’ observations of a third party demonstrates the kind of care that the author has taken in constructing this tale.
For Frances knows exactly what she wants, even though she has not articulated that outwardly.
Not to the reader, nor to anyone else. But Alys, Always is the chronicle of that pursuit.
“I want to say: that sort of innocence in an adult is a form of stupidity really. It’s proof of corruption: too much privilege and indulgence. But I don’t say that, of course. I sit beside him in the airless garden as the darkness envelopes us, waiting for the last candle to go out.”
There is much that the reader is not aware of in this novel, though whether that’s rooted in the reader’s innocence or stupidity, as Frances posits in the passage above, is debatable. Whether the obfuscation is rooted in corruption or privilege or indulgence? That’s up for debate as well.
What remains clear is that Harriet Lane’s debut novel contains pockets of darkness, seemingly airless, enveloping the reader in anticipation.
It’s a delicious kind of un-knowing.