We all have bad days don’t we, like I might have yesterday, or times in our life when we just want to escape from the world we know and have created for ourselves. In Jenn Ashworth’s debut novel A Kind of Intimacy we follow a woman who gives herself a new start and we then watch as the past slowly starts to haunt her, creeping ever more to the forefront of her life again.
Annie Fairhurst has left her old lonely miserable married life with her husband Will behind her. She wants to start again and so has found herself a new home in the suburbs of a Northern town for herself, and her cat Mr Tips, to start a fresh. She wants to make new friends, have wonderful parties and maybe meet a man like her old love Boris, who rather liked the larger lady like Annie and twice gave her a glimpse of how life could be. She is full of hope for the future, especially when she meets her next door neighbour Neil who she is sure came to her aid once when she was a damsel in distress. Yet this unleashes two things in Annie, firstly the fact that her past is a mystery that keeps rearing its ugly head no matter how hard you try and cover it up, secondly Annie isn’t as stable as she might initially appear nor as truthful or lovely. The plot thickens…
What had I told her that for? Honestly, you can sit me down with a cup of tea and a packet of biscuits and ten minutes you’ve got my whole life story. I clamped my lips together to stop any more noise coming out until I had decided how I was going to approach things. There was no point making a fresh start if you were going to bring all the old junk along with you and I certainly didn’t want new friends to become unnecessarily embroiled in my history.
There is so much to love about A Kind of Intimacy it is going to be hard to do the book justice and also rather difficult not to gush about its brilliance. First credit to Jenn Ashworth has to be the pacing of this book. It is one of those books that really, and I don’t think this gives too much away, slowly racks up the tension. It is also one of those marvellous books where the author will give you a very normal seeming paragraph or two until you spot a word or two in one of the sentences that makes you do a double take and then start to ponder all the layers and dark corners that are going on around the edges. It takes a deft hand to do this, there must be hints and not too much show and tell and yet at the same time you really need to keep the reader interested in the ‘façade’ story, if you will, as the book goes on. It is very blooming clever that, a really hard trick to pull off and Ashworth does it deftly.
‘Annie reacts with appropriate anger when her human rights are infringed,’ I recited, which was as assertiveness affirmation I’d picked up from one of the new books. You were supposed to write them on slips of paper and stick them to all the mirrors in the house, but there were too many, the scraps of paper kept falling off and drifting to the carpet like oblong snowflakes, and so I just spent some time learning them instead. I said it ten times as I washed my bloody and dirtied hands with the lily of the valley liquid soap then I went to my bedroom for a lie down. I stayed up there for a couple of hours, only coming down to get a tub of ice cream and a tin of condensed milk because I hadn’t eaten anything since the sausages and I was hungry again.
Secondly, what makes the book all the more brilliant is the fact it is so centred in reality. The cast of characters around Annie are the people you have around you in any neighbourhood. You have the rather hapless yet helpful Neil and his much younger and rather ‘I am so mature for my age’ but actually not at all girlfriend, Lucy. The slightly randy and often rather drunk neighbour across the way, Raymond, and the lovely and very helpful and thoughtful couple round the corner of the cul-de-sac Barry and Sangita, the latter who sees Annie as a bit of a project to get on the local Neighbourhood Watch. Set in a nondescript town with its hairdressers and discount clothes stores, it all seems oh-so normal.
Thirdly, to create a character like Annie who tells us her side of all her stories (some true, some not so) and yet also cleverly give the reader hints that there is much more, and indeed much darker, things going on in the background making Annie sound delightful yet be utterly unreliable, is some sort of genius. It is something I have rarely seen done quite so well. Somehow Ashworth makes us like Annie despite the fact that we soon learn she is utterly bonkers, I mean loop the loop crazy, does some horrendous things (which are also hilarious whilst nightmarish) yet loves her cat dearly, deep down wants to be the perfect neighbour and friend and who has, if I can be blunt, had a pretty crap past. There are themes of being unwanted, missing out on your full potential, a sense of desperation to be liked and welcomed, and most importantly to be loved. We empathise even though we know we shouldn’t and sometimes might not want to.
Which leads to the fourth point of brilliance, the way in which A Kind of Intimacy switches from hilarious to disturbing, from fantastically filthy to utterly tragic. Ashworth knows how to write with all these emotions and feelings going on without one ever taking over or anything becoming too extreme, even when the book comes to its climax. She also knows how to set one against the other to make the reader more engaged be it the fact that the funny bits make you laugh all the louder because then something disturbing comes along, or because the sense of tragedy in the background hits you all the harder because of the humour, the balance only tilting till Ashworth has you in explosive giggles or feeling devastated or shocked.
As you might just have guessed I rather loved A Kind of Intimacy and thought it was rather brilliant. I love books which are quirky, tell a bloody good story, are well written and make you think. This book makes you do all of those and once you have closed the final page I bet you will find yourself often thinking of Annie. I cannot wait to read all of Jenn Ashworth’s other works.
Note: you can have a nosey through Jenn Ashworth’s bookshelves here.