There’s a little-known codicil to the maxim “time heals all wounds,” which is “except those inflicted in adolescence.” How else to explain why the social slights of teenage-hood stick with us in a way, alas, that trigonometry formulas do not?
It is, at any rate, a premise key to Harriet Lane’s crackerjack new novel. Her has been dubbed a domestic thriller, but might just as aptly be called a class thriller—“class” meant here not as a short form of “classy,” though I suppose that shoe fits too, but in the socio-economic sense.
The narrative mic swings, pendulum-like in its evenness, between two women in their early forties. Emma once worked “in TV” but is now in the self-negating throes of early motherhood. Despite living mere blocks from Emma’s modest London home, Nina, a landscape painter, is from a more rarefied social world. So why do we find her, in the book’s opening pages, skulking about the neighbourhood hoping to catch a glimpse of the harried, pram-pushing Emma?
What we’re given to work with sounds like a riddle: at one time social equals, the two women share some kind of past involving an incident Nina has never forgiven Emma for. The puzzling thing is that Emma doesn’t recognize Nina, nor does Nina expect her to.
Her quarry’s identity confirmed, Nina methodically begins insinuating herself into Emma’s life. She phones to say she has found Emma’s wallet before Emma even realizes it’s gone and cheerfully offers to drop it off (when she arrives, Emma takes Nina’s measure in a glance: it’s the latter’s sedate unhurriedness rather than her grooming that tells Emma everything she needs to know about their relative statuses.) Soon afterwards, Emma’s toddler disappears in the playground and, after a fraught hour involving police, turns up on Nina’s doorstep. Nina arranges for her teenaged daughter, Sophie, to babysit so Emma and her husband Ben can enjoy a night out and fills in when Sophie gets sick at the last minute. When Emma mentions that she and Ben can’t afford a vacation, Nina offers up the family pied-a-terre in France.
Each chapter retells the previous one from the other woman’s perspective, so we, unlike Emma, know that all these incidents have been carefully orchestrated by Nina: the “lost” wallet nicked from Emma’s open purse in a grocery store; the “wandering” toddler lured away while her attention was focused on her infant. She does so, what’s more, in a way that not only cultivates Emma’s sense of indebtedness, but also contrasts her haplessness and lack of control with Nina’s cool, patrician altruism. Eventually, even Nina’s “strange, spicy scent” starts to have a Pavlovian effect on Emma: “I realize that it’s so tied up with how I feel about her that I’ve begun, almost to love it.”
Plot-wise, Her bears an obvious resemblance to Lane’s well-received first novel, Alys, Always, in which a newspaper copyeditor who tends to a dying woman in the aftermath of a car crash tries to infiltrate the woman’s family once she learns that her husband is a high-profile novelist. Here, though, the class roles are reversed.
The central anxiety of Her lies in our inability to gauge, despite first-person access, how far Nina will take her campaign: will she be mollified by Emma’s obvious decency, by the fact that, with regard to material success, she has clearly won—or are her cat-and-mouse games merely a dress rehearsal for a more nefarious final act? Just as unsettling is Emma’s obliviousness to the machinations diabolically meted out through her children. At one point, the sight of Nina tossing a salad with her bare hands starts to trigger distant memories, yet the connection, Rosebud-like, is never quite made.
My only quibble with Her is that Nina’s preternatural ability to accurately anticipate Emma’s every reaction and thought is a little too, well, preternatural. This means, among other things, that the repeated scenes can feel a bit redundant.
Near the end of the novel, Nina takes note of the novel Ben is reading in a passage that jumps out for its meta-ness: “I don’t say that I’ve read it and enjoyed it, though I found the final plot twist unsatisfying, as plot twists often are: nothing like life, which—it seems to me—turns less on shocks or theatrics than on the small quiet moments, misunderstanding or disappointments, the things that it’s easy to overlook.” That sounds suspiciously like a preemptive strike; after all, Lane is clearly about apply torque to her own final plot twist. Given the novel’s subtly chilling ending though, it struck me, in retrospect, as something more like boldness.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor