A WEEK of Books About Writing and Publishing
Note: On Monday, I talked about All Men Are Liars, whose characters are all in the writing and publishing business. Today’s book, in a different time and a different place also centers on the business of writing. It just happens that three books landed on my reading pile that deal quite prominently with writing, reading, and publishing. So it seemed logical to group them together this week.
Frances Thorpe, the central characer of Alys, Always, is driving back to London after visiting her parents when she senses something in the woods. Gertting out to investigate, she finds a wrecked car and while waiting for the emergency vehicles, talks to the dying woman inside, who says her name is Alice.
The plot thickens when Frances returns to the newspaper office where she works as an editor in the book review section. She discovers that “Alice” is Alys Kyte, wife of a famous novelist. That discovery, makes Frances think about her own unremarkable life compared to the life of a literary lion.
I really can’t say much more about the plot without destroying the really entrancing chain of circumstances that follow. At first each incident seems commonplace, but increasingly I found myself inhaling sharply and thinking , “What?!? I didn’t see THAT coming.”
I can tell you that this is an extraordinary book in many ways–not least of which, that it is a debut novel by Harriet Lane. (that link takes you to her website which is almost too fashionable for its own good.) She certainly handles a suspenseful plot like an old pro. The characters are clearly depicted, interesting and memorable. Lane uses products, decor, clothing and even food to depict class differences and underscore Frances status as an outsider who has not decided where she fits. In fact, my only complaint comes here, because as an American reader some of these character and cultural tags were strictly British and did not translate for me. Of course I could guess from context and work around to the meanings, but I slightly resent publishers who do not think it necessary to Americanize texts. American freelance writers are generally expected to be sensitive to British readers, so why not the other way ’round?
“Weetabix in the cupboard, muesli, cornflakes, so on and so forth. No, not that milk, dear, there’s one open on the lower shelf. Bread in the breadbin. Jam’s in the cupboard, or perhaps you’d like Bovril?”
The china coffee-grinder bolted to the pantry wall, the deep cupboards piled with cake tins and glass jelly moulds, the snagging drawers full of old implements suggesting a more leisurely and satisfactory life: nutcrackers, cherry-stoners, sugar tongs, grape scissors.
These sharp descriptions based on telling details not only let us see the specific places Frances lives in, it also shows us slices of life from England–real life, far from tourist country. And as travelers who read, that is what we’re looking for, isn’t it?
Likewise, although we are following the psychological deconstruction of one woman–Frances–the novel opens our mind to more univerals thoughts of what celebrity does to a life and to a family. And what it does to people who are ordinary but strive for more.
The description of books pouring in to the newspaper in hopes of review made me laugh. It all sounded so familiar.
Oliver is doing the post, tearing apart corrugated cardboard parcels to reveal novelty golf guides and pink paperbacks with the drawings of high heels and cupcakes on the covers, chucking most of them into a large carton bound for Oxfam or (if he can be bothered, which he usually can’t, eBay. There’s an idiotic tyranny to the post delivered to the books desk: wave after wave of ghosted memoirs and coffee-table photography retrospectives and eco-lifestyle manuals, none of which even vaguely fit the Questioner’s remit.
Harriet Lane came to this razor-sharp portrait of book reviewing from jobs she held in the review section of two different newspapers. Unfortunately, a obscure ailment that affected her eyesight drove her out of her profession and into the new profession of novelist. And we can be happy that she chose to write this novel.
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All photographs used here come from Flickr and are used under the Creative Commons license. Click on each photo to learn more about the photographer.