I was very intrigued by the reviews I read of Alys, Always when it was first published back in February, but it was one of those books that was added to my wishlist and promptly forgotten about in favour of newer titles. But then a few weeks ago I was lucky enough to win a giveaway on Twitter hosted by Harriet Lane herself, and when a festively-wrapped copy landed on my doorstep I dived right in.
Frances Thorpe lives a modest and uneventful life in North London. A thirty-something and single sub-editor on the books pages of a struggling newspaper, she spends her humdrum days at work and passes solitary nights in a shabby but comfortable flat. She has few close friends and her family don't understand her.
Driving home one night from her parents' house in the country, Frances happens across the scene of a terrible car accident and hears the last words of the victim before she dies. As the last person to speak to her, the police ask if Frances would mind meeting the woman's family to provide some closure in their mourning period. Her first instinct is to steer well clear, but her curiosity is piqued when she learns that Alys was the wife of Laurence Kyte, one of the country's most well-known literary darlings. She stops thinking about the emotional comfort she can provide to the Kyte family and instead begins to consider how ingratiating herself with the Kytes might benefit her social life and job prospects.
Frances is such a terribly Machiavellian character - but I loved her! I always thoroughly enjoy reading about characters who appear dull and innocuous to the outside world but are actually wickedly perceptive and manipulative. Frances is a masterful introvert and uses lots of careful listening and the occasional well-placed casual phrase to beguile those around her and wrap them around her little finger. Her cunning is so subtle that the reader is often left wondering how much of her relationship with the Kytes occurs by chance and how much happens by her own clever design. Her ultimate goal is never clear and the ending came as a complete surprise to me.
The novel is short but very well-written and peppered with witty observations of British life. I recognised the privileged Polly Kyte in several acquaintances from my university days, and smiled at Lane's hilarious descriptions of Frances' parents and their Middle England lifestyle.
When I hear the phrase 'psychological thriller' this is not necessarily a book that would spring immediately to mind, as the pace is slow and there is little 'action'. If you read it expecting a thriller in the traditional mould you might be disappointed. But let me tell you, while I was reading the final few pages there were hairs standing up at the back of my neck with anticipation of how it would all end.
I have just about finished this in time for it to make it into my best books of 2012 and at many points it reminded me of the very first book I read this year, and another one of my absolute favourites - The Talented Mr Ripley.