Her by Harriet Lane

I read Her at a feverish pace, falling asleep at night with a feeling of unease. Whenever I approached the book I did so with a mixture of eager desire and dread: I both wanted and didn’t want to know what the main characters were capable of.

Without spoiling the plot, the novel is about two women in their early forties living through very different phases of life.

Emma has small children – she starts the book pregnant with her second – and as such her life is governed by their care, by the relentless cycle of feeding, changing, cleaning and managing emotions that simultaneously saps her energy and brings her joy.

Nina has a seventeen-year-old and a career as a moderately successful painter. Her days are mostly her own. She can chose when to go in to her studio, where to eat lunch; she has time to think and breathe.

Nina is the drive behind the novel because it is Nina who recognises Emma in a busy London street. From that moment, Nina is consumed by the idea of finding Emma, of somehow insinuating herself into Emma’s life. Emma, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to recognise Nina at all.

Though Emma admits that she has ‘always felt lucky’ (p229), that she is ‘due for a bit of a kicking’ (p230), the Emma we meet in the novel is struggling through the fog of early parenthood mostly unappreciated and unnoticed. She may have been blessed with golden charm in her youth, but does she really deserve the flip side of Nina’s attentions?

As the novel progresses we grow ever keener in our desire to understand what happened between Emma and Nina in the past and Harriet Lane does an impressive job of allowing the reader to imagine whilst withholding the truth, letting us think of things that might blacken Emma’s character and warrant Nina’s obsession, without seeming divisive or tricksy.

Even without the enticing plot line, Her is full of sharply observed writing that cleverly exposes the conflictions of modern motherhood and the way in which old pain can linger and consume beneath the surface. This is not a book for the faint-hearted. Whether you are irritated or drawn-in by Emma’s self-absorbed, middle class, dilemmas (there are references to Mrs Dalloway), whether you are horrified or delighted by Nina’s cold, clinical regard, you will feel something, you will feel forced into some kind of reaction. And the empty, open maw of the ending is a delight.

Reflecting upon the novel in its entirety, I’m not sure how much I like Her. I’m drawn to it, the characters are brilliantly depicted, but whether I would want to return to it without the relentless pace of the plot I can’t say for certain. I suppose time will tell. For now, I’m relieved to be released from it, though still a little nervous of what my dreams will bring. If last night brought visions of my youngest daughter’s naked chest lurid with welling bruises, I can only hope for better tonight. Let’s just say, you have been warned.

Read it and let me know if your dreams turn to nightmares…

Next week I’m reading In the Beginning was the Sea by Tomás González.

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