The late Joan Rivers was known for a comedic style apparently uninhibited by moral qualms or social taboos but when asked if there might be any subject unsuitable for a joke, she responded: “the death of a child”. I’ve often wondered how far she might have stretched this self-imposed restriction: do adolescents count, for example? And now, unless she’s left us a few surprises in her posthumous archive, we’ll never know.
Rivers died while I was reading Her, the second novel by Harriet Lane. If we place it alongside her debut, Alys, Always, it would appear that Lane has a certain fascination for women doing damage. Not in the Hollywood model of psychopathic nannies and bunny-boiling spurned lovers, but more subtle, slow-acting, psychological poison that tears individuals and families apart without them realising what’s going on until it’s too late.
Nina ingratiates herself with Emma’s family and begins to exact a slow, subtle revenge. Some of this is simply deliciously banal — ensuring that Emma’s husband Ben sees the receipt for an expensive pair of shoes that his wife bought without telling him — and some subtly monstrous: she lures away the couple’s elder child Christopher while they are walking in the park and takes him home with her for a few hours, then claims to have found him, lost. The key point here is that there doesn’t appear to be any intention on Nina’s part to inflict any mental or physical harm to the boy, at first at least — she just wants to make Emma suffer the agony of imagining the danger he may be in.