Her – Harriet Lane

A couple of years ago, I remember seeing Alys, Always by Harriet Lane in our local supermarket. I picked it up, looked at it and put it back down. It was in the chart, at the supermarket, it couldn’t possibly be that good. Oh, what a judgemental so-and-so I was. Soon though, people I trusted were talking about it on Twitter. Why hadn’t I bought it? I thought. Eventually I ordered a copy and it’s been on my TBR ever since. However, when I saw Lane had a second novel coming out, I decided it was my opportunity to see what she’d got.

Her is the story of two women, Nina and Emma, who alternate in telling their stories. Nina begins:

It’s her. I’m almost sure of it.

It’s clear from the offset that Nina knows Emma and seeing her affects her greatly:

The sensation of it, of finding her there in front of me after all this time, is almost overwhelmingly powerful: like panic, or passion. I feel my hands curl into fists. I’m very conscious now of my lungs filling with air, and then releasing it.

Nina lives a solidly middle-class life. Her teenage daughter, Sophie, attends the local private school; her second husband Charles is an architect who designed their second home in France; her father is a celebrated composer, and Nina herself is an artist.

However, it’s not long before she’s helped herself to Emma’s wallet and is nipping round to give it back to her.

Emma and Nina couldn’t be more different:

I stand there in the doorway, with a stained tea towel over my shoulder, ketchup on my jeans, and (though I don’t find this out till later) flour in my hair, and I look at her and just for a second, I recognise her, her life; and I want it so much, really, that it hurts.

Emma is pregnant with her second child. Her toddler, Christopher, is a handful and Emma’s felt herself – the woman who used to work in TV – disappear under laundry and shopping whilst her husband Ben’s star rises as he takes advantage of the positions vacated by Emma and women like her. Emma’s so harassed and vulnerable to the attentions of a glamorous, seemingly carefree woman like Nina, that it’s easy for the smart, manipulative Nina to ease her way into Emma’s life.

Some visitors spectate. They stand there at the edge of the room, smiling and chatting as I rush around with carrot sticks and J-cloths, and I know deep down they’re enjoying seeing me reduced to this…she notices what needs doing, and she does it: quietly, without ostentation or apology. While I’m flapping about…she fills up the kettle and drops the dirty plates in the dishwasher.

It’s not long before Sophie’s arranging to babysit for Emma and Emma’s inviting Nina and Charles over for dinner. All the while, Nina hints to the reader about something that’s happened in the past, while Emma fails to recognise this woman she knew years earlier. All we can do is watch as the secret is revealed and the consequences are played out.

What makes Her special is the way Lane uses the dual narrative. Rather than simply tell the story from two characters’ points of view, moving the action along as the perspective shifts, she tells the same story from two sides, interspersed with moments from each of them that move the plot on. If this sounds boring, reread the last quotation I selected, which is from Emma’s perspective, and then read this, from Nina’s:

When she’s wiping the table and the floor, I fill the kettle and switch it on, and then I collect plates and stack them in the dishwasher. Christopher watches me without curiosity. ‘And what’s your name?’ I ask him, and then I ruffle his hair, and I have the pleasure of feeling him twist away from my hand, objecting to my gesture. ‘Oh, isn’t he a poppet? They’re so delicious when they’re this age.’

Emma didn’t mention Nina speaking to Christopher and it’s these details that we see but the other character doesn’t that builds our anticipation and leaves us dreading Nina’s next move but unable to look away.

What’s Lane got then? She’s got style – in terms of plotting, sentence structure and language; she’s got the mettle to attempt and execute perfectly a parallel dual narrative, and she’s got a dedicated new reader in me.


Thanks to Weidenfeld & Nicholson for the review copy.

24 thoughts on “Her – Harriet Lane

  1. Great review, Naomi. This one sounds quite chilling, and I get a palpable sense of foreboding just from reading your review and the quotes you’ve selected here. I like the sounds of how the dual narrative works as it’s fascinating to see the same scene from two very different perspectives, and your quotes illustrate this very effectively.


  2. She’s a clever writer, isn’t she? All that you say about the construction and how well carried out the book is, I remember that from Alys Always.

    I did think with AA that there was a slight anti-climax and no “wow” ending – a messy disastrous ending would have been more memorable.

    I also find it inspirational that Harriet Lane is able to carry on working while she is going through the uncertainties of sight loss.


    • She is. That definitely makes me want to read AA now. I thought the ending of Her was going to be anti-climatic but it’s very much not, although it’s not entirely clear what has happened, that’s left to interpretation.

      Yes, I think she’s incredible. Did you read her Guardian piece on her sight loss recently?


      • I found the Guardian piece when I Googled looking for the first piece I read a year or so ago. It was very moving and described so bleakly the anxieties looking to the future and the difficulties of each day. Things we take for granted. It doesn’t seem fair.


  3. I think I’m going to love this book. Give a well-constructed, manipulative female character and you got me!

    Again, it reminds me of the upcoming movie “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her/His” of which I sent you the trailer. The original script was mostly his side of the story, but actress Jessica Chastain started asking questions and the writer developed “Her”.


  4. I remember seeing reviews of Alys Always and thought it sounded rather good, but as always didn’t get around to either getting it or reading it. I miss out on so many good books – just not enough time 🙂 This sounds really interesting too though, great review.


  5. I just finished Her and I had to come back to comment! I have to admit that the double narrative felt a little bit slow sometimes, but it helps the reader so much with getting to know the characters. Now that I am done I also realized that it is a very intelligent way to realize that there are as many lives, perspectives and opinions as people are in the world.

    Oh, and the ending? I thought: “No way, it can’t be!”. I actually had to read it twice. And yet, you kind of saw it coming…


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