The American cover of Jenn Ashworth's second novel is badly misleading and presents as teenage-chick-lit-murder-kitsch trash preening to take itself seriously. However, when you start reading, you realize that you are in the hands of an evocative, acutely observant writer who may, in the not-too distant future, pen a novel that earns a spot on the Booker long-list. She can turn a phrase, spin raw into bold, scour us with prose.
Ashworth writes searchingly, hauntingly, and meticulously about teenage restiveness and jealousy; growing up with a mentally unstable parent; how the media erects false monuments; predators and predatory nature; and the inner lives of people short-circuited by guilt and shame, shut down by life at a young age. Her narrators are unreliable, abject, contrary.
Think indie film, back when indie films weren't an industry of precious, quirky, star-making features, but rather ensemble pieces shown partly in grainy texture, in an atmosphere that is "shrieky and curious and raw." This is somewhere in an economically depressed place in Lancashire, near the Ribble Valley. Laura, now twenty-four, lives in the council flats and works as a cleaner in the local shopping center. She's pallid and dingy with limp hair and acne scars. Everything in her flat seems coated in a furry substance.
Laura turns to the TV for a broadcast memorializing her best friend, Chloe, fourteen, who drowned ten years ago with Chloe's much older boyfriend in an apparent suicide pact on Valentine's Day, 1998. But no one says "suicide," they say "tragedy." The council is erecting a monument, essentially making Chloe a saint. There's now a rose named for her, called Juliet, as in Romeo and Juliet.
"She was special, when she was alive--but not in the picture-perfect way people think of her now. Being dead has turned her into a final draft."
This "concrete folly" being erected is "half a monument to love gone wrong and half a nice piece of publicity for the City's urban renewal programme--... something for the teenagers to [smoke] their glue in. It's morbid and sentimental, it ticks all the right boxes for community enterprise funding..."
First on the scene with unexplained deaths and always bursting with bad news, newscaster Terry Best of television's The City Today mugs up to the camera, as he has been for twenty years. As the cameras roll on the ribbon-cutting with the mayor, a piece of earth is dug with a spade, and another body is unearthed, temporarily taking the limelight off Chloe. Terry's in his element, though, upstaging Chloe while floridly covering both events--sharp Terry, always ready for seamy, muddy twists, making a living on it, a daily fixture in their lives.
The narrative alternates between the present and the past, a reconstruction of Chloe and Laura's friendship, with a third wheel, Emma, who, ten years later, is demonstrably more mentally unbalanced than Laura. Emma lives on disability and volunteers at a pet shelter. Emma and Laura have a tenuous bond now, meet for coffee sometimes, and speak dartingly of Chloe.
In the evening, Emma comes by Laura's flat, after the newly discovered body is declared on the news, and Chloe and Emma share a box of wine and delve deeper into the past. Through these circumspect conversations and inner dialogue, the reader slowly, gradually begins to piece together an accurate picture of the past. We also learn about Laura's family life--her deprivations, her father's illness, the constant and accumulating terrors of everyday life.
Although the unreliable narrators are integral to the reconstruction of events, at times it feels protracted, and you just want the story to get on with itself. The casual pacing falters at intervals. From the first chapter, you realize that this is not a "detective novel," per se; however, there is tension from unexplained events. Predators skulk the woods, a person goes missing, shadows lurk. But it is primarily about the accretion of psychological blows, the small bruises and bitter inflictions, and the skewed perceptions of the media, which glimmers on everything but the truth.
"Every single time Emma came up with a fact, I provided one more and she ran out of things to say first, and at the end I was still holding Chloe's secret in my mouth, like the time we put buttons under our tongues to make us sound posh when we made prank phone calls."