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Alys, Always: A well-written first novel told with verve

Alys, Always
Harriet Lane

According to Fay Weldon – and I don't know where she got her figures – the nobility and gentry in 1800 England comprised a mere 5,000 people, of a population of 11 million. Much of the remaining 10,995,000 – servants, shopkeepers, schoolmasters and the like – were, one infers, a miscellany of middling wannabes, most if not all with their noses pressed against the candy-shop window of the aristocracy.

Two hundred years later and apparently nothing has changed, if we are to credit British writer Harriet Lane's Alys, Always, an assured, frequently funny, frequently disturbing first novel whose narrator suggests the offspring of a very disconcerting union – The Talented Mr. Ripley, say, crossed with What Makes Sammy Run.

The narrator, Frances Thorpe, has the great good luck to be a copy editor on the books pages of a newspaper. Strangely, she doesn't see it as such ("every week it falls to me to rescue some celebrity professor or literary wunderkind from hanging participles or apostrophe catastrophe"), so when fate should put her in the way of a car accident one night, she sees the brass ring glint, and springs.

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The woman whose car has gone off the road is the Alys of the title: Frances spends the woman's last moments with her, the two of them awaiting the paramedics Alys does not live long enough to meet. The end for Alys is the beginning for Frances. The fortuitous encounter brings her into contact with Alys's well-to-do family: husband Laurence; 19-year-old daughter Polly; and twentysomething son Teddy. Grieving, they ask to meet her to share Alys's last moments, and when Frances learns that Laurence is a Booker Prize-winning author, she agrees.

The first tremor of alarm – for us – reverberates when she and Laurence meet: "I have something he wants, I think, with a prickle of possibility. I wonder if I can give it to him." Thus does our conception of Frances shift; not a good Samaritan, after all, but a woman with a subtle eye, a keen mind, a chip on her shoulder and the patience to forge them into a precision instrument in the apparently endless class war.

Frances does not cause a death but she profits by one – and "profit" is the key word. For what becomes clear is that Frances's frame of reference is entirely economic. Her boss's annoying (to Frances) assistant is "as bumptious as he is well-connected"; the clothes worn by Laurence's agent, she notes on first meeting her, are "the sort that cost serious money"; the crowd at Alys's memorial service is "an expensive crowd; plenty of familiar faces behind the outsize shades"; while the atmosphere of a restaurant Polly takes her to is "full of cash." Even Alys, Frances notes in the few moments she has with her, drives a good car and has "an expensive, cultured voice [that] goes with the Audi."

As Frances, coolly brazen, insinuates herself into the family's life, she moves through this medium of privilege with tempered resentment, noting "the air of entitlement, the absolutely impermeable confidence." She battens on to Polly's supreme self-involvement and Laurence's loneliness, ever on the lookout for what she calls her "tiny moment of possibility," always ready when it comes, and never forgetting the great gulf that divides them – "Don't mistake them for your friends," she admonishes herself – while scheming with every move to bridge it.

Too smart not to know how she must appear in their eyes – "pale, nondescript, as dull as my clothes" – she nonetheless has the ambition and unhappiness, that lethal mix, to transform herself into someone with "plenty to offer: youth, independence, freedom," someone "whose actions … serve as currency for the little people." Ah, the little people. She's come a long way, our Frances.

Alys, Always is not flawless; the ending is not quite believable (and yet, so surely is the character of Frances drawn that for some it will be entirely so) and Lane's symbols at times groan, so freighted are they (the windows in Hampstead, where Alys's family live, "are always cleaner – more reflective, more transparent – than the windows in my part of town"). Still, it's a well-written story told with verve, so much so that Frances, unlikable as she is, becomes perversely compelling: You keep turning the pages, certainly – perhaps more absorbedly than you'd like to admit.

Toronto writer and editor Kathleen Byrne once had the great good luck to work as a copy editor on the books pages of a newspaper.

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