There’s always a niggling worry that a second novel won’t quite live up to a debut as impressive as Harriet Lane’s chilling Alys, Always but I’m pleased to say that Her doesn’t disappoint. It’s a one-sitting, riveting read: a dual narrative as cleverly controlled as a Maggie O’Farrell – queen of that particular form – but with a darker edge.
Out shopping one day Nina spots a harassed young woman, toddler in tow, recognising the self-assured teenager she once knew. Emma fails to recognise Nina when she engineers a meeting and a curious relationship begins narrated by each in turn. Nina is an artist, quietly successful and married to an older man, with a teenage daughter from her first marriage. Elegant, polished and collected, she’s everything that Emma is not, ragged with the exhaustion and constant small anxieties of child rearing. Through a series of apparent acts of kindness and contrived coincidences, Nina insinuates herself into Emma’s world until the two become friends. Emma, her confidence ground down by no longer playing a part in the grown up world of work, is flattered and delighted to be singled out by such a sophisticated woman.
Lane expertly handles the tension between Nina and Emma’s narratives. Nina’s small cruelties, cleverly calculated to inflict pain and upset, are revealed for what they are in her own account while Emma picks up the pieces, unaware of her manipulation by her new friend. It would have been all to easy to paint Nina as an entirely monstrous character but she has her own unhappiness to bear as, haunted by dreams of failure and insecurity, she watches her daughter drift inexorably away from her into a world she can’t enter. Over it all hangs the question of what can possibly have happened between these two to have brought about such cold, steely hatred. When the answer comes it doesn’t so much shock as illuminate Nina’s character still further. Not entirely sure about the ending which I’d arrived at some time before reading it but somehow the journey there is the point. It’s a very fine psychological thriller. Lane seems to have carved out a niche for herself in the genre and I’m already looking forward to what she delivers next.