Monday, 7 April 2014

All this buttoning and unbuttoning

I very much enjoyed Harriet Lane's first novel, Alys, Always; it is a tightly-written and effective thriller that I would highly recommend. However, with her second novel, Her, I think she has outdone herself. Her is both beautifully-written and incredibly convincing. Rather than amping up the drama with a series of significant events like even the most subtle of thrillers - including Lane's debut - tend to do, Her instead bravely explores a relationship in which nothing of much consequence seems to happen or, crucially, to have happened, and yet rackets up the tension nonetheless.

Like Alys, Always, Her is focused on the interplay between two women; however, this time, the object of the obsession is very much still alive, and narrates half of the novel. Emma once had a high-flying career in TV, but now finds herself submerged in stay-at-home motherhood, chasing after her two-year-old son Christopher while heavily pregnant with her second child. When Nina, a confident and successful painter with a teenage daughter, re-encounters Emma, she realises that Emma remembers nothing of their previous acquaintance. Nina, however, remembers every detail acutely - and she is determined to make Emma pay. However, if Frances, the manipulative narrator of Alys, Always, was, as she put it, 'making pastry' as she inveigled her way into Alys's old life, Nina is making choux buns to Frances's shortcrust, so lightly and imperceptibly does she trouble Emma. Nina's delicate interventions are matched by Lane's precise prose. She's good at both description and social observation. As Nina looks through the contents of Emma's purse, she notes 'A green prescription form, scrawled over with a GP's hurried initials, for an entry-level anti-depressant.' Emma, on holiday, imagines 'my spine unfurling like a time-lapse fern, the spaces between the vertebrae widening and expanding.' It's the details - the entry-level, the time-lapse fern - that make these sentences work so well, and convinced me that Lane is a fine writer as well as a shrewd social commentator.

Ultimately, Her is such an interesting novel because the material with which it is built is so mundane. There are no really gory skeletons in the closet. Instead, we are reminded that the things that matter so much to us, that we can remember so well, often don't possess the same weight for anybody else. Emma forgets everything, struggling to organise her household and her children, but Nina, with a freelance career and a self-sufficient teenager, has time to remember too much. What drives her is not necessarily the seriousness of her loss - which was possibly not that serious at all - but the space she has in her head to retain, and to avenge, her younger self. We all have a 'him' or a 'her', somebody who briefly but significantly intersected with our lives, and, Lane seems to be saying, if we had Nina's time and opportunity, perhaps we would pursue them - although Nina goes further than most of us would go.

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