Alys Always

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.

Destination: England


Book: Alys Always (New in the U.S. June 2012) by Harriet Lane
The woods on Horsenden HillAlthough there is nothing supernatural going on, I think it is fair to say that a dead woman dominates this novel.

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 FetishIn the morning at her parents’ house, her mother says to her:

“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?”

Roses and Lavender at Borde Hill Gardens, West SussexBy contrast, when Frances is a guest in the Kyte’s home, she surveys the kitchen:

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.

If you shop through the links to Amazon, even though it costs you no more, you will be helping A Traveler’s Library. Isn’t that easy? Shouldn’t you do all your Amazon shopping through our links?? Thanks.

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.

 

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler’s Library, recreating her family’s past at Ancestors In Aprons. She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

Vera Marie Badertscher – who has written posts on A Traveler's Library.


About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons. She writes frequently for Reel Life With Jane and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

10 thoughts on “Alys Always

  1. I see both sides, but default to the idea that a book has to be engaging for a particular reader, no matter what side of the planet they’re on. I dunno, though. Good to keep the writer’s original vision. On the other hand, it makes me realize why I have trouble with some English novels. It’s like when filmmakers release American versions of foreign films (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo springs to mind). We’re not so stupid we can’t read subtitles. In the case of Dragon Tattoo, the original was much better than the American version.

  2. Hum, so I wonder what the solution would be–maybe a list of common British words used in the book indexed at the end? My husband and I love to watch the BBC and we often rewind or look up unfamiliar words.

    1. Kris, the problem is there were so many words that are NOT commonly used in Brit/American speak. It reminds me of older books where the authors assumed their writers read French, Latin, and sometimes even ancient Greek–no translation required!

      I know the most common differences in usage like lift, lorry, boot (car trunk), jumper (sweater),biscuits (cookies) chips (fries) and crisps (chips).Most of those words were also in the book along with much less familiar ones.

      I think a glossary is not a bad idea at all. Then if someone chooses to ignore it, they can.

  3. My husband and I are currently in England on our 1-year round-the-world journey. I always try to read something that helps immerse me in the location. This sounds like a perfect choice!

    I’ve bookmarked your site and will continue to refer back as we move through additional countries.

    Thanks for the recommendations!

  4. The plot sounds very interesting and something I would like to read. I’ll be honest though that the language thing is one reason I do not like to read English novels. While I do like to broaden my horizons and learn new things, it is distracting to me to have to look up words and phrases.

  5. I don’t mind not understanding a word or two. Bovril? I did not know the meaning. Also am curious what “snagging” drawers are. Sounds like she’s quite a good writer.

  6. Kerry: I understand what you are saying, based on the economics. However, in cases like this where the British English vocabulary is so overwhelmingly important to the story, I think that a very fine book may lose readers in America because of the difficulty of understanding. And like it or not, American market is dominant in the book trade.
    I once belonged to a critique group in which we would mark awkward or difficult passages that slowed us down as “speed bumps.” I love this book–Alys Always–but I have to admit it was full of “speed bumps.”

    1. As an American expat who has always read English novels and now lives in NZ, I’d agree with Kerry. Also, I’ve always loved the British flavor of books and because of that, my vocabulary transition to living in one of the “colonies” was much simpler. If an American reader really need to know what Weetabix or Irn-Bru (a Scottish soft drink much consumed in one of my favorite series of mysteries set in Edinburgh) is, it is easy to look up. Expanding my vocabulary and exploring the world of words from other places is much more important to me than avoiding a “speed bump” and having everything sound the same.

  7. Vera, you say
    “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?”

    I’d tend to disagree, here, especially when it comes to book length work. Leaving aside the writer speaking in her own context aspect — and it’s a big aspect — there’s not usually a budget for such localization for books, and while the United States is a big market, think of all the other varieties of English speaking markets which might seem to need their own loclaization of reference. For periodicals and web sites which are read internationally, certainly the idea of being aware of differing usages and frames of reference makes sense at times, but books?

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