"Frances is a thirty-something sub-editor, an invisible production drone on the books pages of the Questioner. Her routine and colourless existence is disrupted one winter evening when she happens upon the aftermath of a car crash and hears the last words of the driver, Alys Kyte.
When Alys's family makes contact in an attempt to find closure, Frances is given a tantalising glimpse of a very different world: one of privilege and possibility. The relationships she builds with the Kytes will have an impact on her own life, both professionally and personally, as Frances dares to wonder whether she might now become a player in her own right ..."
That's the starting point for Harriet Lane's novel Alys, Always which has been described as a Barbara Vine-esque thriller and which is getting rave reviews (it will be out later this week). Its setting is literary London where Laurence Kyte, husband of the dead woman, is an acclaimed Booker Prize-winning author; through her contact with him Frances gains access to a gilded world, and with her increasing status comes recognition and prestigious commissions from her boss, literary editor Mary Pym.
Here's the opening passage:
"It's shortly after six o'clock on a Sunday evening. I'm sure of the time because I've just listened to the headlines on the radio.
Sleet spatters the windscreen. I'm driving through low countryside, following the occasional fingerpost toward the A road and London. My headlights rake the drizzle, passing their silver glow over gates and barns and hedgerows, the 'closed' signs hung in village shop windows, the blank muffled look of houses cloistered against the winter evening. Very few cars are out. Everyone is at home, watching TV, making supper, doing the last bits of homework before school tomorrow.
I've taken the right fork out of Imberly, past the white rectory with the stile. The road opens up briefly between wide exposed fields before it enters the forest. In summer, I always like this part of the drive: the sudden, almost aquatic chill of the green tunnel, the sense of shade and stillness. It makes me think of Milton's water nymph, combing her hair beneath the glassy cool translucent wave. But at this time of year, at this time of day, it's just another sort of darkness. Tree trunks flash by monotonously."
I've read on - forty or so pages - and I'm hooked. Frances has now met Alys's family and seen what contact with them might lead to for her. The story is about to broaden out, I think, but this is very taut writing, and I get the sense that Harriet Lane has complete control of her material so that in the telling it's going to be very direct, no meandering, no digression, though the reader might be played like a fish! I'm impressed and intrigued and I wouldn't dream of putting the book down.
Edited to add: jacket design is by Carrie May.