One of my reading highlights last year was undoubtedly Jenn Ashworth’s debut novel A Kind of Intimacy, a wonderful dark book which featured one of my favourite things – the unreliable narrator. This was made all the better because she was a complete and utter loon, which gives nothing away as watching her go slightly psycho and discovering why she has gone over the edge is one of the fascinating facets of the book. Anyway I have reviewed that one, but it will make you understand why I turned to Cold Light at the start of the year to keep my rather marvellous reading momentum going and it didn’t disappoint.
As Cold Light opens we meet Laura as she sits in front of the telly watching a memorial being erected in her home city, only this memorial is to a young girl and her boyfriend who tragically died a decade ago. The girl was Chloe, Laura’s best friend at school, a role she often competed for with Emma, when they were fourteen. However as space is made for the plaque, live on TV, a body is unearthed and Laura instantly recognises the coat it is found in. Laura then starts to unravel a winter in her teens which she has both hidden from, becoming famous after her friends tragic death, and revisit a time when three fourteen year old girls lived a life of lies, jealousy and secrets.
Jenn Ashworth plays some bloody good games with her readers with her second novel. Throughout the book we are constantly wondering what Laura is telling us, how true it is and of course what there is that she is leaving out. In the present we find out that she has completely cut herself off from her parents and yet still occasionally sees Emma, a girl who she competed with in childhood and didn’t really like, but why? She has also made her life the most unnoticeable she could, is this due to a lack of self esteem or is she hiding from her past or something in it?
I never got a job at a cafe, and I never tried Woolworths. I clean the shopping centre. It’s my job to put the out the yellow triangles before I mop: little slipping stick men to warn you of what you’ll get if you walk on wet floors. I use the motorised floor polisher with protectors over my ears while the television screens mounted overhead show the shopping channel, the talk-shows, the consumer revenge panels. I don’t get paid much, but after all the shops in town went 24-hours there’s as much work as I want. It’s not Woolworths or a perfume counter, but I have my own trolley and I know my way around the service corridors even in the dark. I do all right.
One unreliable narrator can often be an abundance of dark secret riches, as Ashworth proved with A Kind of Intimacy, yet she’s done that before and so we also get a cast of characters who might all be hiding secrets. Not only must we question what Laura is hiding must also do the same for those around her. As we slowly go back to the winter when all this happened we get insight into other things going on at the time such as her father and mother seem to be falling apart, there was a flasher out on the streets who has started to want to interact more than just expose and Chloe’s boyfriend Carl starts to show signs of being rather violent and nasty. The plot thickens.
‘I’m not sure I want you going out that far on your own at night,’ she said. ‘It’s dark. And anyway, you’d think – ’ She went to the bottom of the stairs, shouted my father’s name at the top of her voice, and then used the broom she kept there to bang on the ceiling a couple of times.
‘What? You’d think what?’ I said.
‘You’d think on his wages, he’d be able to afford more than fifty pee’s worth.’ She shook her head and pointed through to the front room with a pot-scourer. ‘It isn’t safe for you to be wandering the streets.
‘He’s stopped hasn’t he?’
‘For the time being, perhaps. But no one’s been caught.’
As the book goes on not only does the plot thicken, the plot twists, the plot gets darker. Without giving away any spoilers you start to suspect all the cast of characters of having done all sorts of awful things. Ashworth does this expertly because she isn’t feeding you these thoughts, just leaving you little titbits to take away and make as dark as your own nasty little mind will go. She shows but doesn’t tell and sometimes you might be right, sometimes you will be horrified that you could suspect someone (even a character you have come to really like) of doing something they simply didn’t. You never feel a fool, it just makes you realise what nasty suspicious thoughts you can have. Clever, very clever!
What I also loved about Cold Light is the way it feeds off and plays with(and homage to) some of the great tropes of literature. In some ways it is a crime novel, there is a body discovered at the start and a mystery to unravel, yet it looks at the way the crime now (and something in the past) affects a whole community and the extreme reactions it causes. It also toys with the coming of age tale, or if I was being really pretentious ‘bildungsroman’ which just sounds filthy, as we watch how these three girls navigate life and each other. Teenage girls can be such bitches. Finally it also plays with those bleak, cold, ‘ooh it’s grim up north’ novels and takes it to extremes both in atmosphere but also because it doesn’t feature loads of middle class people moaning about it, it’s the actual working classes who often don’t get a voice. I actually described it as being like Mean Girls meets Broadchurch but ‘oop north’ and more sinister the other day, if that doesn’t sell it to you as being a blooming brilliant, compelling yet complex read you must grab, then nothing will.
So as you can see Jenn Ashworth has done it again for me with Cold Light as we have a dark yet also blackly funny twisted tale. A Kind of Intimacy was a rather confined little wonderfully evil monster of a book; I think Cold Light has a broader scope yet a condensed dark heart at its core. With these two novels and the ghost story that turns itself on its head, in a collection I read over Christmas, Jenn Ashworth is becoming one of my favourite contemporary writers. I cannot wait to see what she does with a family drama in The Friday Gospels. Read her.