4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
"switterbug" Betsey Van Horn
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
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."
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Jenn Ashworth has had a short but prestigious literary career. Her debut novel, A KIND OF INTIMACY, won the Betty Trask Award, critical accolades and commercial success. COLD LIGHT, her dark, moody sophomore effort, seems destined to surpass the impact and promise of her first work.
This is the story of three young women in a small English town, one of whom is dead even as the story begins. Laura, who is the main character and narrator, and Chloe are teenage best friends, a pairing that becomes a circle when Chloe brings Emma into the group. It is Laura and Emma who reach adulthood; Chloe, at the tender age of 14, dies in a swimming incident with Mark, her much older boyfriend, in what is officially considered a suicide but is referred to thereafter as "the tragedy." The prologue begins immediately after Chloe's death, with Laura and Emma sequestered in their school as the police investigate the tragedy.
The opening chapter begins some 10 years later in 2008. A ceremony marking the event is occurring, with a groundbreaking for a commemorative summerhouse near the pool where the drowning took place. The event itself is marred by a mysterious and grisly discovery, one that resounds and echoes throughout the book. However, Chloe's death has permanently left its mark upon Laura, who is not right --- not by a long shot. Laura is an invisible, supporting herself by cleaning at a local mall and having all but given up on her life. It is not that her aspirations were all that lofty --- she remembers, with only a twinge of wistfulness, that she had once planned to work as a retail clerk --- but her appearance indicates that she is going through the motions. As bad as she is, however, Emma, the third wheel of the group, is much worse, living on a disability pension due to mental problems and volunteering at a local animal shelter.
Following the short-circuited memorial service, the two surviving women get together in Laura's dingy apartment and discuss the past. Their revelations are uncovered slowly --- somewhat excruciatingly so --- as mysteries, including the one so gruesomely revealed that afternoon, are uncovered (literally) and brought to light, from the present to the past. Some are predictable, though much is not, but the impetus of the narrative is the manner in which a single event --- and the occurrences leading up to it --- cause irrevocable changes to take place in the lives of those who are left behind. Everything, every detail, is important here, including a pivotal figure who makes the skin crawl practically from the first sentence of their introduction. By the end, a line has been crossed and a change has been wrought. It is doubtful that any reader will be able to pass by a group of pensive teenage girls without thinking of Chloe, Emma and Laura and feeling a chill.
Ashworth already has marked her places as a major literary talent. Comparisons with Tana French are inevitable, and, indeed, the moods that each evoke with their respective works are quite similar, even as they mine somewhat different ends of the same mountain. For Ashworth, the tales of dead-end lives in small and dying towns should provide story grist for some time to come.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub