Reviews for Friends #10: Her, by Harriet Lane

Don’t trust thy neighbour

Uneasily gripping from the outset, Her is the story of two women similar in age but (semi) worlds apart in situation - Nina, a poised successful artist, Emma the messy-haired struggling mother of two - who’s lives intertwine when one of the women exploits a chance meeting on the streets of a middle-class London suburb. Little does Emma know that Nina has engineered their ensuing, odd-couple friendship - their paths having already crossed long ago in childhood. Nina remembers Emma, but the other is oblivious to their shared past. As the story unravels ever so slowly, we realise Nina has been carrying it with her for her whole life and, in her eyes, there is a debt to be paid.

Told through a dual narrative, Her is a quiet thriller built less around reveals and more through taut character assassination. The steady, almost languid pace, is extremely clever. The story so subtly nuanced that at times you forget you are reading a thriller - you too, like Emma, are lulled into Nina’s clean, polite and comfortable world of wealth and French holiday homes.

Nina is a complex character very well executed - so well, in fact, that it is not until the final chapters that we learn the depths of her darkness. We are kept guessing as to her true motives right up until the end - beyond the end, even - and this lends the tale its suspense. Does Nina want to push Emma until she remembers her? Make her apologise? Does she want to hurt her? Information is drip fed to the reader and this build up is comparable to the way Nina has evidently built up Emma’s childhood act - a small one, a misunderstanding at best - in her own mind over the ensuing 20 years to the extent that is has, like the woman herself, become a monster.

Emma, too, is a painfully observed modern mother totally absorbed in her young children, and in an existence totally defined by them, that she is blind to the manipulation taking place so excruciatingly close. You find yourself willing her to notice, to at least question Nina’s readiness for kindness, to sit down long enough to remember herself. Her hapless husband ben is no help, so (cruelly) caught up in the life of television freelancing that Emma once shared with him.

Nina, cooly self-aware, makes no secret to the reader of her method for choosing the men in her life. Almost clinically done, they are there only to serve a purpose. Current husband, Charles, may as well be invisible - his only use to be rolled out for social occasions, to keep up the pretence of a normal life, to allow her to keep a studio.

I find a dual narrative hard to realise successfully but here it is skilfully balanced without ever boring the reader through repetition, neither does it lose any of the momentum - rather it plays a subtle but key role in delivering it. As in Lane’s debut novel, Alys, Always, the pace is deliciously controlled, the relationship at the story’s heart so painfully honest it’s brutal - intimate, twisted and truly breathtaking. Like a spider drawing its prey into her web, even Emma’s chapters are weighed down by Nina’s presence, a toxic cloud growing in weight as we stroll towards the quietly dramatic climax. A heart-stopper of an ending, exquisitely unfinished.

The impression of Nina will linger on my mind - I imagine her skin to be the colour of marble, a ballet dancer in another life. She could only be an artist, her fire - and what a lot of it - controlled under that cold exterior. Sinister perfection.

Lane is fast turning into my new literary hero. I love the honesty she brings to female friendships, calmly exposing the spite, jealous competition and the bubbling resentment. I can’t wait to see what characters she produces next. I’m hoping for sisters.

 
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