Her by Harriet Lane

9780316369879_p0_v1_s260x420Harriet Lane’s suspenseful thriller – Her – uses an unlikable revengeful protagonist to methodically stalk her unknowing prey.  The book is a page-turner: you will know early in the story who the victim, Emma, is and her past relationship to the sly Nina – but you will wonder exactly how far Nina will go to exact her revenge.  The ending will have you holding your breath.

As in her first book – Alys, Always – Lane focuses on the characters, slowly revealing the unlikely villain, until you are caught in the story and wanting to alert the poor target of the venom.  In Her, Nina recognizes an old foe and carefully calculates how to exact revenge for something that happened so long ago that Emma doesn’t even remember it.  Nina remains incognito as she slyly insinuates herself into Emma’s life – stealing her wallet and then pretending to have found it, luring her toddler into the woods and then alerting the police to his rescue.  The chapters alternate between Emma and Nina, each relating the same incident, but from a different perspective –  Nina, the stalker; Emma, the vulnerable target.

A great read – not only for the comparison of the lives of two forty-year olds – one who wears Prada, the other stumbling through parenting a toddler and a newborn – but also for the intense psychological thrills as the story quickly progresses to a climax.  Harriet Lane has mastered the art of the dangerous female protagonist; I can’t wait for her next one.

Related ReviewAlys, Always


Gentlemen and Players

A civilized tale of a British boarding school with traces of Goodbye Mr. Chips and Dead Poet’s Society slowly evolves into an insidious pursuit of revenge and murder in Joanne Harris’s Gentlemen and Players.  

Harris concentrates on the plot to overturn the school and destroy the reputations of the faculty, but the underlying theme is Snyde’s pitiful teen years, yearning for a different life.  Snyde grew up poor, living in the rundown gatehouse of St. Oswald’s, a posh school for boys, but he was able to insert himself anonymously into the school society.  Pretending he was a student was simply a matter of stealing the uniform and avoiding detection. Eventually, he finds a friend at the school; Leon unknowingly helps Snyde’s efforts to assimilate.  As the story opens, Snyde – with a new name and a fake resume – is one of the new teachers at St. Oswald’s, and the mole that will destroy everyone there to revenge an incident that changed his life.

Harris, better known as the author of Chocolat, flips back and forth from young and then grown-up Snyde and Roy Straitly, the 64 year old Latin teacher trying to make it to his 100th term.  To identify the speaker, Harris only reveals subtle clues, changing time and place, sometimes making the story hard to follow.  Using the analogy of a chess game, Harris plays her pieces as slowly as a real match.  False rumors, well-placed incriminating evidence, and innuendos that lead to gossip and then suspicion – the moves that lead to dishonor and murder.

As you patiently read through the endless descriptions of school boy pranks, teacher idiosyncracies, administrative foibles, and the computer shock to elders, you might be tempted to skip the details, but Harris drops hints that are easily missed; this is a book you need to read slowly.  Harris hits you with a surprise ending you will not anticipate; I won’t spoil it by telling you, but it was worth the drudgery of getting there.

After the plot’s climax, Harris offers an insightful perspective on the futility of revenge that reminded me of Christie Clancey’s essay for the New York Times.

“The whole idea of revenge… is a childish day-dream. Properly speaking, there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to commit when you are powerless…”

George Orwell