harriet lane, ‘her’ (2014)

★★★★☆

In Harriet Lane’s 2012 debut Alys, Always, dissatisfied sub-editor Frances Thorpe is drawn mothlike into the literary world of the alluring Kyte family, following a fateful encounter with its (now deceased) matriarch. Part taut psychological thriller, part Brideshead Revisited redux, the novel scored favourable comparisons to Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and was an early crest in the recent wave of narratives featuring fantastically twisted anti-heroines. Above all else, it introduced a confident writer with all the expertise and charisma to make you powerless to resist just one more chapter at 2am.

Those who enjoyed Alys‘s through-the-keyhole view of middle-class London and its shark-eyed glimpses of human vulnerability won’t feel like they’re being led into altogether new territory in Lane’s compelling new follow-up Her. Again we find ourselves in the company of a master manipulator who all too clearly sees the big picture; who blinks slowly in the face of her victims’ distress. Told in alternating chapters by successful landscape artist Nina and struggling housewife Emma, we quickly realise (even if Emma doesn’t) that these women share a fraught history — and that Nina doesn’t quite have her new friend’s best interests in mind. Like Frances before her, Nina often seems to turn up in the right place at the right time, and we soon establish a pattern of hearing events from Emma’s unsuspecting perspective before doubling back with Nina to see what truly happened. But while Alys, Always was ultimately a story of aching aspiration and ruthless opportunism, the driving desire for revenge at the heart of Her tips the balance, and we are now called upon to sympathise with a devil not only in Prada, but whose actions more and more frequently cross the line into cruelty. Here Lane plays with her reader’s assumptions: because of her similarity to Frances we might think we understand Nina — we trust her, as Emma does, to be a certain kind of (albeit monstrous) woman. But just what is she capable of? What is her long game? And what on earth did Emma do?

In the fledging years of the Women’s Lib movement in 1960s America, Ira Levin’s now-classic horror stories featured bright, capable young women brought to ruin by the selfish machinations of the insecure men around them. In Rosemary’s Baby, eccentric elderly neighbours court a pair of newly-moved-in newly-weds, offering support and wisdom through the young couple’s subsequent months of pregnancy. As it slowly becomes clear that something is rotten in 7A, Levin plays with ideas of women’s agency, the trauma of emotional abuse, and a mother’s obligation not only to sacrifice her own needs to protect her child, but to love and care for it, unconditionally. In Her, Emma is only susceptible to Nina’s manipulations because she’s so lonely and miserable in her day-to-day life. Though she loves her family, the once vibrant career woman now feels neglected by her husband, consumed by her children, uncomfortable in her own skin, and critically detached from her feelings. Repeatedly blaming her emotional fragility and giddy adoration on alcohol, in truth she is intoxicated by Nina’s presence and attentions; by this sophisticated woman’s measured calm, her life experience, her vaguely unpleasant “strange spicy” perfume. In Rosemary’s Baby, the protagonist is made to wear a “good luck” locket whose pungent herbal scent is supposed to boost her health during pregnancy, but in fact only makes her feel worse. Similarly, Nina creates havoc in Emma’s life only so she can solve it, gaining influence by making herself an essential confidante, bringing herself in just close enough to feel the soft spot pulsing beneath her hand.

Why do we remember, what do we forget? Do women survive childbirth? Are monsters born or made? Can we ever truly see ourselves as others see us? (Would we ever truly want to?) Her doesn’t offer up any easy answers, but it will pull you in from the start, keep you up late, and have you dreaming up all those long-forgotten faces from the past.

Recommended for fans of Gillian Flynn, Jenn Ashworth, and Disney’s Maleficent — and for anyone else forever scarred by watching early-90s maternity creepfest The Hand That Rocks The Cradle at a way too formative age.