Harriet Lane

Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson 12 June 2014

288pp, hardback, £12.99

Reviewed by Caroline Sanderson


Revenge is, of course, a dish traditionally served cold, and that in a toxic nutshell is the theme of Harriet Lane’s deliciously unpleasant second novel, in which she makes of that dish a perfectly plated-up thriller, ideally consumed at one sitting.

Emma is a mother of one, with one-on-the-way, who is struggling to reconcile the off-stage drudgeries of caring for small children (‘all this buttoning and unbuttoning’) with her all-too-recent memories of the woman she used to be. Nina, by contrast is a successful artist: sophisticated, independent, entirely in control of her life. When their lives entangle, it appears (and as Emma believes), a happy accident. In fact their paths have crossed before, at a time and in circumstances that Nina has never been able to forget, or forgive. In a tautly-controlled unwinding to its ghastly conclusion, their parallel stories are told in first-person counterpoint.

To reveal much more would be to spoil. The fact that Her has already been compared to Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal should provide enough of a clue to its malicious content. It’s an apt comparison, but Lane’s novel stands apart on its own merits too. She has a gimlet eye for domestic minutiae and how they betray us. Emma’s To Do list in the little orange jotter by her bed (‘Cecily’s jabs/Cancel veg box/Smear test’) lies next to the novel she’s reading (‘the one everyone was reading last summer’). Bras hang drying like ‘pale bats’. And rarely has any writer so well nailed the ambivalent feelings and frustrations that attend motherhood, nor laid bare the fervent but futile steps we all take to safeguard the future of our offspring, in the face of ‘our approaching powerlessness’- and in this case, approaching malice.

Her is an immensely classy thriller which will have you in its grip to the very final pages as you try to fathom who is capable of what, and indeed who is guilty of what crime.  Along the way, our growing sense of foreboding is stoked with inspired malevolent touches. Who could forget this nasty subversion of a pure and good Sylvia Plath quote on motherhood: ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch. Hate can do that too.’

So beware the hand that rocks the cradle.

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