I have been a fan of Jenn Ashworth’s for quite sometime. Ever since our lovely mutual friend Emma Jane Unsworth popped a copy of A Kind of Intimacy into my hands and said ‘read this’ I have become a huge fan of her words both in her second novel Cold Light and also the stories in the wonderful ghostly collections Curious Tales. So when a proof of her fourth novel, I have skipped the third for now, Fell arrived I was so excited I could pop. I was also nervous, would this live up to how much I had enjoyed the previous two? Fortunately for everyone involved, and for those of you yet to read it, I think that Fell might be the best book I have read by Jenn and also one of the best books that I have read this year.
Her key in the lock wakes us. It wakes the starlings too: they rise chattering out of the trees in the front garden and hurl themselves into the sky. They don’t fly far; before the door is open they have landed, disgruntled, on the roof ridge. We flutter at each other like leaves, finding the words for things, laughing, stiff as bark, too wooden to grab and hold on tight.
Yes. We are. We are. Dazed as newborns! The proprietors of this place. A respectable house. Netty. Jack. That’s what they called us.
As the door of The Sycamores opens for the first time in years, so does Fell with the awakening of two ghosts, Netty and Jack, who used to own the property before (as they soon discover/remember) the house was left to fall to wrack and ruin. It is the return of their daughter Annette that has woken them, a begrudging return after what has seemed like decades and where plants, birds, cracks, damp and various creepy crawlies have taken over. As the ghosts of her parents watch over Annette they soon realise that their daughter is once again troubled (yes once again, well noted I will come back to it soon) and they feel, once again, that they have to protect her in some way. What then starts to unravel is not only the story of why Annette has come home after so long but also how decades before, in 1963, their lives were changed forever when Timothy Richardson became a part of their lives in the most unexpected way.
A Scottish accent. Something soft and well bred about it. A gentle voice, with a smirk to it, as Netty might say.The boy has put his tee-shirtback on, but rolled up the sleeves tight under his armpits. He’s only wearing his swimming trunks and the tee-shirt and there’s something faintly obscene about it, much more than the bare chests of his friends. It’s as if (the refreshing sensation fades along with the boys smile, the heat closing in on him again and giving him trouble marshalling his thoughts properly) he’s wearing the shirt to underline the fact that he isn’t wearing any trousers.
As the story unravels, and do not worry I am not going to give masses away, we soon learn that back in 1963 Netty had discovered she was incredibly ill. Around that time the meet Tim at a swimming pool (well lido near Morecombe Bay, which is a wonderful area to set this book) where not only does he mesmerise Jack visually in some strange way, he also does something strange to his vision which seems unbelievable, he fixes his sight. For it seems Tim has a gift for healing and with Netty being so sick and Jack desperate for help, he soon joins the other boys at their boarding house with the hope of making Netty better. Yet is Tim all that he claims to be? And if he is, is he a fallen angel or a charming devil. Jenn Ashworth beguiles the readers as much as Tim beguiles all he knows and starts to take us on a dark and magical tale from there on wards.
There is honestly so much about Fell that I loved I am going to have to try really hard to be succinct and not waffle on about its brilliance. So where to start? Well there is that fact that it is just beautifully and wonderfully written. Firstly there is the narrative, not a lot of authors could get away with writing a novel through the voice of a collective duo of ghosts a tricky device but impressive if pulled off. Netty and Jack can both go through their memories at the time, both separately and together. They are all seeing and all knowing, yet they also look back with a sense of distance and hindsight looking at the things they did and the consequences of those actions on each other and particularly with Annette as a young girl, the can also travel with Annette in the present and potentially influence the now. It is a clever trick which many an author would fail to build compellingly or believably, Ashworth does both with skill.
Then there is the story, which I have alluded to and is brilliant, where Jenn also manages to make the novel/tale riff off the myth of Baucis and Philemon. Though I won’t say any more on that in case of spoilers, so don’t go and Google it until you have read Fell I just wanted to point out another wonderful factor. However as we all know without great characters and setting a story falls apart, again nothing to worry about here. so don’t go and look it up and Ashworth’s creations Netty, Jack, Annette and Tim (even the enigma is a fully formed if tricksy) are all wonderfully drawn as are the periphery folk around them in the past and in the present; Candy, Maddy, Eve, Tom. The area of Morecombe Bay and Grange-over-Sands is also perfect for this tale. For those of you who have not been this area, once a popular place to recover from illness or have a holiday, is now a slight ghost town, nature is raw and a little dangerous, the sea isn’t really sea and it has a sense of the ‘other’ about it; all of which feeds into the whole feel and gothic sensibility of the book.
Then there are the themes, so many it is again hard not to gush endlessly about how brilliant it all is. You have the question of Timothy’s abilities, are they real or are they not, is it a gift or a curse, can we cure everyone (which is of course still a huge question today) and should we, how far will we go for the ones we love, what will we avoid telling the ones we love because we think it will hurt them, when are hope or denial good and/or bad emotions.
In her coming weeks Netty will look back and try to pinpoint the moment when she first started to believe in Timothy Richardson, a butcher’s apprentice from the city of Edinburgh.
Sickness is clearly one of the main themes of the book and it is one that chimed with me the most. Not just because I’ve recently been diagnosed with a lifelong condition, thankfully not terminal and manageable with surgery and painkillers; though I can’t pretend hasn’t caused me some ‘bloody hell life can be unfair’ thoughts, which Ashworth captures wonderfully. But also because I helped care for my Gran when she was terminally ill and as much as it is a gift to be able to look after someone who is unwell, also becomes something of a curse not just because you must watch them decline but also because they can be blooming difficult, and you can totally understand why, and it can be one of the most emotionally gruelling times in all your lives. Again, Jenn captures this all too realistically, yet writes about the intricacies and rawness of all these emotions beautifully and with a sense of compassion and deftness of touch around all that darkness.
Jack glances over the paper. She’s shooting daggers with her eyes. I’m sick and you’re not, and you can go and do what you like and I have to have help to get up out of chairs and I don’t gripe about it. But this small thing. I want. I want it. I want. Sickness has made her selfish. Maybe she’s a bit grateful too. He can put his foot down, which means she can sulk and keep believing that she would have been able to drag herself across the sands if only he’d let her. She can barely get up the stairs these days.
The final theme I will mention is probably the one that has literally haunted, pun intended, me since I have read the book… The themes of haunting. Obviously from the start you have two ghosts narrating it, this is not your average ghost story though, well it is but it is also much more than that. Yes this is a novel about a haunted house, yet it isn’t the kind of ‘crash and jump, things flying around the house’ kind of haunting this is much deeper than that. The house is literally haunted by the memories and events as much as the dead and the living are haunted by them. The idea of haunted ghosts has really stuck with me as has the question that those ghosts bring to Fell; will we always be haunted by what we did or didn’t do in our pasts? It sounds on the surface like a simple question, yet the more you think about it the deeper you have to go inside yourself and your emotions to ponder it. This of course is also the perfect analogy of what Fell as a novel is all about, a darkly magical tale which has many hidden depths. It is quite, quite something and has reminded me that some of the best books we read are those we have to savour slowly and ask ourselves some of the bigger questions. I cannot recommend you read it enough. Don’t rush it, just slowly get lost in it, I promise you it is worth it.