Harriet Lane’s Her delights in deliciously twisted corners of suburbia

Harriet Lane

Harriet Lane - Credit: Archant

If asked to name some of the darkest corners of north London, few would surely pick Highgate’s Pond Square or the children’s playground in Waterlow Park.

Yet in the novels of Harriet Lane, it is often the cosiest suburban environments that play host to the plots of her deliciously twisted characters.

“One of my friends said the other day that my women really seethe,” the author says as we talk over coffee in Highgate’s Côte Brassiere. It is a fitting description that encapsulates the deceptively malevolent protagonist of her debut novel, Alys, Always, as well as one of the main characters from her new tale, Her.

In Lane’s second novel, artist Nina lives a comfortable and sophisticated life in Hampstead. However, when she meets Emma – a struggling mother in east London – she is reminded of a previous time when the pair crossed paths. As the two women become increasingly close, Nina’s vengeful master plan begins to reveal itself and the “weird alchemy” of a psychological thriller takes hold.

“I don’t know why I like to create these kinds of characters,” laughs Lane, who lives in Archway. “I suppose it’s because they’re really fun to spend time with – bad people, naughty people.

“Even when writing a thriller, though, the thing I’m most interested in revealing is personality. In my first book, you get to know the person very slowly and that’s the point. When you read a novel, you make so many assumptions about what you know straight away and you trust you’re in good hands – especially if you’re being informed by a first person narrator.”

Having worked for much of her life as a journalist, Lane has always been mindful of the influence words can have. Yet when a rare autoimmune disease struck in 2008, the possibility of continuing a writing career in any fashion suddenly seemed an impossible task.

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The condition – dauntingly called Chronic Relapsing Inflammatory Optic Neuropathy – has rendered the 44-year-old blind in one eye, with the other only functioning through a heavy dosage of specialist drugs. It forced her to step away from journalism and it was not until she tentatively decided to try a creative writing course at Lauderdale House that she put pen to paper once more.

“I went along and I was absolutely petrified. Because I was a huge reader, it always seemed that novels were a very ambitious art form, so to even have an inkling that I might one day want to write myself was just so shaming.

“But I immediately after the first exercise felt this instant relief that I was writing again, that it was still fun, that whole business of finding the right words was so satisfying for me.”

Since then, becoming an author has given Lane a crucial creative outlet she thought might be lost forever. With Her already receiving glowing reviews from the press, the mother-of-two is keen to make the most of her opportunity and not let her eyesight further inhibit her literary ambitions.

“People have different analogies for when they’re talking about how they write: for some, it’s like throwing a pot; for others, it’s like whittling a whistle out of a piece of wood.

“For me, it feels like being roadrunner and rushing off a cliff. If you stop and look down you’ll plummet, but if you keep going a bridge will build itself underneath your feet. It’s a wilful act of mad – probably unjustified – confidence, and not stopping. You’ve just got to get that initial velocity going.”

Her by Harriet Lane, published by Orion, is out now priced £12.99.