Please see here for a full summary of the ‘Her’ by Harriet Lane, as the nature of this blog post will purely be to discuss my own thoughts and conclusions, and so will provide spoilers if you are planning on reading the book. I will also be referring to the characters’ chapters as [N] for those told from Nina’s perspective, and [E] for those told from Emma’s perspective. This may mean that if Nina says something, but Emma has relayed it in her chapter, the quote will end with an [E] rather than an [N], as the key point in ‘Her’ is to know what each character says and thinks when they are away from the other (i.e. Nina’s perceptions of Emma are more important than what she actually says to her, and vice versa. If you are familiar with the book, or have read a brief summary and synopsis, the significance of this will be clearer).
Harriet Lane’s ‘Her’ takes two seemingly opposite women, Nina and Emma, and looks at their differences, similarities and how they both fit into each other’s lives. Whilst the ending lacks the clever storytelling the rest of the novel boasts through Lane’s descriptive wonders, it is inherent that she has cleverly written into her work more than the obvious contrasts she may initially want us to focus on. It is only through reading the novel in its completion do we realise how far these binaries run, between the two women but also through the multiple aspects of their lives beyond their control, as well as how similar both ends of the scale actually are; our differences all eventually come full circle, and back round again.
When reading ‘Her’, the most notable motif running through the book is the way in which the two characters jar against each other simultaneously; not only do they complement each other – with one presenting one side, the other the other – but they both present both sides at different times (almost when they are needed to). Their personalities, actions and opinions are fluid, and they both make up for what the other is lacking - when one displays ‘good’, the other fulfils the need of the ‘bad’ to contrast this, for example. This is aided through Lane deliberately and constantly pitting the women against each other, allowing comparisons to be drawn and the reader to make their own assumptions.
Due to these divides, it is easy to shift the blame between Nina and Emma at different points, and hard to pin down a protagonist or at least a character we dislike the least. Here are a few of the contrasts that stood out to me throughout reading, simplified purely to group my ideas, rather than to generalise the complexities that can be read into these contrasts:
- Light/Dark: the setting best depicting this contrast is when Nina goes into the church solo during their time in France; ‘I’m blind, halting, and then I see the glow around a pillar, and the tray of candles comes into view’ [N]. This rich description of the church, and Lane’s further elaboration of Nina’s unease, shows just how intertwined the ‘light/dark’ contrast is with right/wrong/ Personally, I felt this scene in the church, where Nina truly reflects on what she is doing, to be telling; the lengths she will go to enact her revenge is apt of the idea that ‘light will always find a way in the darkness’.
- Right/Wrong, Good/Bad: this kind of moral duality, that is so present in every-day life (even when we’re not plotting revenge), underpins the novel through a series of subtle, but recognisably noticeable little-nods to the contrast: ‘Before long, these little things look conspicuously wrong’ [E]; ‘Things aren’t right, I can’t find the right place, I’m lost’ [N]; ‘Isn’t Ben good?’[E]; ‘Somehow, it doesn’t come as a surprise. It feels right’ [E]; ‘knowing this feels wrong…rallied by greed, and I think: OK, good’ [N]; ‘the pull of convention – the desire to do the right thing – is strong, even in children this young’ [N]. Emma and Nina’s assertions of these contrasts allows Lane to discuss their complexities overtly, without ruining to over-arching plot for the reader. She shows us the rights and wrongs in both women, without needing to spell it out.
- Love/Hate: as both women are in long-term marriages and with families of their own - and how Nina’s revenge stems from the questionable relationship Emma previously shared with Nina’s father - it is natural that love and hate will both be prevalent themes throughout ‘Her’. The strength of these emotions is never more present than when Nina discusses caring for her daughter, Sophie: ‘I love it, I always have; and yet now, for the first time, I find myself resenting it’ [N]. This is telling of how denial and acceptance (another binary) is not so finely cut as love and hate, and that the two can intermix in what would otherwise be a clear opposite.
- Upper/Middle Class: the women’s implied positions also strongly relate to their attributed strengths and weaknesses. Whilst I do not think Lane is necessary making a comment on social standing and position, I think it is important to remember that Nina is seen as having freedom with her wealth (particularly through the description of the family’s French summer house, which Emma says is, ‘an idealised statement of how we should live’ [E]), whereas Emma is constantly described as being out of her depth, seemingly unable to cope with the demands of modern life and raising a child (her and her husband Ben ‘decided that it makes more sense for [Emma] to stay at home’ [E] and be a full-time Mum).
- Free/Constraint (implied by the domestic), Calm/Stress: again, even though the need for revenge centres around Nina and her inability to accept the past, Emma is continually depicted as trapped by her role as a ‘mother’ – ‘If I’d have thought about [motherhood] hard enough, would I have made the same choice? Yes, yes, of course. But still’ [E]. There is an unspoken sense throughout the novel that, whilst Emma clearly loves her son Christopher, she slightly resents the time that decision was made, or feels it was made too early for her by the pressures of the traditions associated with marriage and typical gender norms. In tandem with this, Lane makes a point of Nina cleaning up after Emma a couple of times, with Emma stating, ‘I’m only conscious to the chaos that I’m bringing to the house’[E]. I also like the little touches in Lane’s descriptions, particularly in the seemingly mocking return to the women both drinking tea made from ‘camomile flowerheads’ (a herb typically used for its calming qualities), possibly used in conjunction with the women so they can portray a false sense of ‘calm’ and ease; both Nina and Emma are rattled by different circumstances within their lives, and arguably both have stresses created by their children.
- Reality/Fantasy: this need from both women to constantly portray the image of being ‘put-together’ lends itself to the use of daydream, and how both women use fantasy as a device to take the edge off their realities; ‘Those pulled-together women’ [E], Emma says of Nina, when really it’s all an illusion. Nina also relates about her recurring ‘dreams’; ‘I’m hurrying up that dark twisty staircase, and it’s unclear whether I’m chasing someone, or whether I’m the one being chased’ [N]. Despite their familiarity, Nina is still panicked and surprised when she has them. With this particular dream, the ‘staircase’ imagery links to the idea of the women’s lives going round and round, with Nina reliving these fantasies either to justify reality, or to punish herself in her dreams.
- Life/Death, Youth/Age: living life through a false lens can lead to a warped sense of where you actually are, as well as the conditions that you are actually in. For myself, this is most potent in some of Lane’s more explicit descriptions, particularly when discussing a low point of Emma’s: ‘I close my eyes, feel the baby’s solid, dampish weight against me, imprisoned by it’ [E]. Here, Emma speaks the unspeakable when she says she is bound by her child, knowing it is a choice she has chosen, but (naturally) feels overwhelmed by it, and incapable of going through with caring for him.
- Pleasure/Pain: arguably, there is more pain and hardship throughout the novel in the women’s lives than pleasure. However, it is the small outbursts of joy they both so ironically take for granted that make the pain experienced all the more poignant, true and relatable for the reader. ‘It does me good…Long enough’ [N]; Nina is calculated in her actions, but plays off her decisions with a disturbingly casual ease, giving the impression (to people like Emma) that her life is unplanned, in turn making it more desirable for others, but also unattainable. Nina’s selfish intent hides her inner sadness, and longing, as well as her possible jealousy of Emma: ‘It’s like an itch, an ache and a burn all at the same time. I recognise this feeling. It fills me with joy’ [N]. Nina’s somewhat settled relationship with pain is disconcerting for the reader, and evidence of the mind-games she is capable of enacting.
- There are also little binaries and juxtapositions Lane tosses into descriptions to keep us tense and aching to read more: ‘being flipped from ‘closed’ to ‘open’.’; ‘The house creaks and settles around us…the wood expanding and contracting with the seasons’; In Nina’s mother describing Sophie, ‘Sophie’s an angel...Now: you at seventeen. That was a handful.’
- It is also clear that Nina and Emma’s lives have shifted. When they were younger, Emma was the desirable one, full of promise, whereas Nina was the more drab and needed to work harder to have the same successes. These parts of their lives are interchangeable, and even shift through Lane’s retelling of events, as she dips into the different parts of their lives and how these fit into each other’s.
Not only Nina and Emma’s characters, but the nature of the whole novel reminds me of the reflections caused by two mirrors on opposite walls, causing seemingly infinite reflections that can be seen from both sides. This could also be likened to a true stalemate in chess, where only the Kings are left, but cannot be in touching squares – they can go no further and are as equal as can be. Nina and Emma are both ‘drawing’ in this way; unrelenting, and in denial over their position over the other. This is also furthered by the alternate Nina-Emma chapters, often with two opposing accounts of the same scenario – such as when Nina saves Christopher, whereas in reality, she chose the right moment to take him, keep him, and then return him to the police only at the time that suited her and made her out to be the hero.
This cyclical nature of the dualities actually meeting at some point links to 'The Droste Effect'; 'a ‘recursive image’ that appears to be infinite, appearing within itself. This can be seen in the novel through Lane’s persistent yet subtle returns to the same elusive imageries: ‘one stone, all these bloody ripples’, ‘a pebble sent rolling’, ‘one thing sets in all in motion’; the minor alterations in description causing further disease for the reader. The pebbles start the movement, which ripples out, meets its end and then returns back to the undisturbed surface of the water; mirrored in Emma’s asking her son on the swing, ‘Do you want to go over the top?’ [N]. The disruption caused is fleeting, but not without consequence.
Leading on from 'The Droste Effect', and the idea of things returning, Emma and Nina both make themselves the subjects of their own stories, clear when they discuss the fantasy versions of their lives or what they would like to happen in their realities: ‘I want to try the story out, see how it sounds’ [N]. So whilst both women are concerned for the other person, and concerned with their own dualities that they are trying to hide (through the images they hope to portray), it poses the question, are Nina and Emma essentially two sides of the same ego? They both crave a sense of accomplishment and have the same drive to be a ‘good’ and ‘well-respected’ person – the greatest fear the idea of ‘all those turned backs’ [N], not in agreement with their own needs. Are the women merely presentations of what is the aspirational and the true, which they go between at different stages in their lives: ‘the context she has carefully assembled for herself…whole mess and order’ [N]. Are they shifting their narcissistic focus of themselves – whether their impressions are good or bad – onto the other person, whom they can draw so many contrasts and even more similarities? – ‘I wonder if Emma ever stalks her younger self’ [N], Nina wonders, when we know Emma talks of her life pre-children as ‘a person I was introduced to long ago’ [E]. This adds to the book’s underlying notion of the stranger versus the familiar, and when this line is best drawn.
The nature of the genre leads the reader to second-guess every statement, intention and how true these women actually are. This is heightened by Lane’s tantalising little morsels of the wider story, casually dropped in to the women’s retelling of events as if they were no big deal: ‘the farm in Kent owned by my grandparents’ [E]; ‘I feel, tonight, like someone else’ [E] Emma reconnecting with her ‘other’ self; ;perhaps in some strange way [Emma] complements me’[N]; ‘It’s all pretty much as I’d expected…This is us. This is who we are’ [N].
Neither character is good or bad, and we all have this duality – you can be a good person with bad traits, you can be a bad person with good traits (to put it very simply). It is however, the narcissistic elements in both women - who have such a pre-disposition to put themselves at the centre of every scenario - that leads to the alarming denial of their dualities, and their incessant need to cover these up. Lane sheds the light on the more negative parts of themselves that Nina and Emma would need to confront to be the ‘good’ people they so desire to be. If left undisturbed, these tendencies could have the potential to ‘take over’, as we see most obviously happen to Nina, with her calculated and darkly psychological revenge on Emma.
Until next time, H.M.
References and Further Reading:
- All quotes taken from ‘Her' by Harriet Lane (Edition 2014, Orion Books, ISBN 978 1 7802 2002 4).
- Summary of 'Her': https://www.litlovers.com/reading-guides/13-fiction/10130-her-lane
- The Guadian's review of 'Her': https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jun/15/her-harriet-lane-review-chilling-revenge-noir
- 'The Droste Effect': https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Droste_effect (Apologies for referencing Wikipedia, as I'm aware it's not always the most valid source so I try to avoid doing this. However, in this instance, this is one of the clearest sources I found for 'The Droste Effect' and was useful in forming my understandings and conclusions).
- Surrealism Today's definition of 'The Droste Effect': https://surrealismtoday.com/the-droste-effect/
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