Alys, Always by Harriet Lane

published 2012

A tiny movement outside the kitchen window catches my eye, and I stop and lean over the sink and look out, down on to the street, and I can see – in the illuminated triangles beneath the street lamps – that snow has started to fall, slowly and steadily. It falls and falls, for days and days. It seems, for a while, that the snow is the only thing happening in the world. It catches London off guard. Buses are left abandoned on roads. Schools are closed. Councils run out of salt. And when I wake up in the morning, my first thoughts are not of Alice, but of hope that the snow is still out there, still working its disruptive, glamorous magic.

On my day off, I walk across the Heath, through a sort of blizzard. All the usual landmarks – the paths, the ponds, the play areas, the running track – are sinking deep beneath lavish drifts. Under a pewter sky, Parliament Hill is glazed with ice. Blinded by flurries, people are tobogganing down it on dustbin lids, carrier bags, tea trays stolen from the cafeteria near the bandstand. The shrieks and shouts fade quickly into insulated silence as I walk on towards the trees, their branches indistinctly freighted with white. Soon the only sounds are the powdery crunch of the snow beneath my boots, the catch of my breath. When I reach Hampstead, the flakes are falling less furiously; now they’re twinkling down, decorous and decorative. I trudge up Christchurch Hill and Flask Walk, looking in the windows, which are always cleaner – more reflective, more transparent – than the windows in my part of town.

observations: There’s still a lot of snow around in the UK today, so another snowy scene to celebrate. After yesterday’s murder story, this is a book with no such definable crime – just some lying and cheating - but a strong air of people-behaving-badly. It was one of the best new novels of 2012.

In this early passage, the narrator Frances (one hesitates to call her the heroine) hasn’t yet realized that Alice should be spelled Alys, one of the many perfect details, and the emptiness and poverty of her life are being lightly sketched in. She is soon going to take steps to change all that, and the reader will watch with horrified delight her progress through literary London, even-handedly laughing at her and her victims – it’s a very funny book.

Links on the blog: Yesterday’s entry had links to other snow references, and Alys, Always has featured before. Hampstead - a key literary location in the UK - has had a wide range of blog references: the Provincial Lady lived there before marriage, these counter-factual Resistance fighters met there for safety, and there's a dress shop that women of a certain age should avoid.

Both pictures are American: the children are tobogganing in Central Park in New York (photo from the Library of Congress), the family outside a house are in Brooklyn, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.


  1. Moira - I'd heard this was a good read and I'm glad you found it so. And I just love the description of the snow. Where I live, there isn't any snow and I miss it. I know, I'm probably very much in the minority, but I do. So this was very nice to read :-).


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