Her by Harriet Lane (pbk)

Reviewed by Kim Forrester

her paperbackBritish writer Harriet Lane has followed up her debut novel Alys Always with another psychological thriller that may make you think twice about striking up a friendship with your neighbour.

Her is a proper page-turner that brings to mind the novels of Nicci French — one of the UK’s most popular psychological thriller writers — but never slides into farce or violence. Instead it’s rooted very much in the every day, which makes it all the more sinister.

The story revolves around the unlikely friendship between two women, both of whom are around the same age: Emma has given up a TV career to have children and is caught up in the day-to-day struggle to raise two young ones while her husband juggles a freelance job that barely covers the bills; and Nina is a successful artist, with an equally successful architect husband and a 17-year-old daughter (from her first marriage).

The pair meet when Nina returns Emma’s wallet, which she claims to have found on the local high street. What Emma doesn’t realise — and which Nina takes great pains to disguise from her “new” friend — is that the pair met 20 years earlier, as teenagers.

As Emma and Nina’s lives become more and more entwined over the course of the novel, it becomes clear (to the reader) that Nina is a rather nasty piece of work, hell-bent on wreaking revenge on a rather hapless and naive Emma. But she does it in such a smooth, almost guileless way, that no one seems to notice, making her behaviour all the more chilling.

Both Emma and Nina take it in turns to tell their version of events in alternate chapters, which is a great device for building tension. It also shows Emma’s desperation to be viewed as a person (rather than a mother, whose life now revolves around “scraping and rinsing and wiping and sweeping”) in contrast with Nina’s chilling level of self-control. But if I were to fault the novel it would be that the two voices are barely distinguishable from one another.

However, that doesn’t really matter, because what makes Her work as a page-turner is two-fold: we never quite know what is motivating Nina — what is it that Emma did that requires this level of well-plotted revenge? — and will Emma cotton on to the threat before it’s too late?

Admittedly, the denouement falls a bit flat, but the slow building of suspense and the difficulty in guessing Nina’s next move more than makes up for it. It’s a deeply unsettling read that feeds into every mother’s deepest fears — and the danger that lurks where we least expect it.

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Harriet Lane, Her (W&N, London, 2015), 978-1780220024, paperback, 256 pages.

This review is edited from an original that appeared on Kim’s blog Reading Matters

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