I wouldn’t have expected Jenn Ashworth to be nervous at this stage in her career. Perhaps a couple of novels ago she might have worried that the 2010 Betty Trask prize she’d snagged for her debut A Kind of Intimacy had been beginner’s luck. But her 2011 follow-up Cold Light landed her on the BBC Culture Show’s list of the Twelve Best New Novelists, and the kind words critics had for 2013’s The Friday Gospels (“Never less than inventive and exuberant,” said the Guardian, while the Telegraph called it “absorbing and darkly humorous”) should have given her confidence enough in her ample storytelling talents. But when I first get in touch with Ashworth about her latest novel, Fell, her overriding feeling seems to be trepidation.
“There were many points along the way where I wondered if I could do it,” she tells me about writing Fell. She wrote a key early scene, “and wrote nothing else for six months. I read and walked a lot and worried.”
Granted, she admits, “My partner tells me I was the same during the writing of my other books.” But there’s more to it this time than run-of-the-mill performance anxiety. Fell is a different kettle of fish from Cold Light or The Friday Gospels. From its very inception, its story of a Lancashire family who takes in a roguish young drifter as a lodger set itself apart, drawing her into unfamiliar territory. A big part of her concern was for her audience. “I have a sense – right or wrong – of the kind of things my readers expect from me,” Ashworth says, “and this may not be it.”
What do readers expect of a Jenn Ashworth novel? Well, for one thing, they expect to laugh. Tally up the words of praise critics have lavished on her in the past, and the most used will be ‘humour’. From the pithiest turn of phrase (Cold Light’s narrator pegs her town’s new public-memorial summerhouse as “Something for the teenagers to smoke their glue in”), to whole scenes crafted to elicit cringing chuckles (her fairy-cakes scene in The Friday Gospels is legendary), Ashworth has used her knack for comedy to a variety of ends. Her send-ups of modern British culture work in the best tradition of satire, while her penchant for picking out the absurdities in a given situation has served to add a surprising levity to stories that might have turned into dirges in less capable hands.
It’s not often that an artist with as proven a track record as Ashworth’s opts to turn her back on the very elements that have been key to her success. But Ashworth goes even further in Fell. “This novel is different from my others, in its setting, its genre and formally.” Indeed, the novel opens as a ghost story: Jack and Netty Clifford, both deceased, awaken as spirits with the arrival of their grown daughter at the guesthouse the family abandoned decades ago. At its outset, like any good ghost story, Fell implies a tortuous past, and old wounds which must be healed before the dead may rest and the living may move on. Add to this a touch of what Ashworth calls dirty “miraculous realism” (a term she stole from her PhD supervisor Andrew Tate), in the form of a mysterious young stranger with a supernatural healing power, who steps into the Cliffords’ lives at precisely the right – or wrong – moment.
All my sadness has gone into this story, and a bit of magic too, and it feels like a vulnerable place to be. But that is what the novel taught me it needed while I was writing it.”
Perhaps we can find a link to her earlier work in Fell’s pervasive darkness. But unlike A Kind of Intimacy or Cold Light, the Cliffords’ darkness isn’t of their own making. For Fell, Ashworth has chosen a landscape which plunges its inhabitants into a permanent state of gloom and uncertainty. “Where better to set a story about blurred boundaries and transformations,” she asks, “than on Morecambe Bay – a place that’s half fresh water, half salt water; half land, half water, cycling over the years and day to day so it’s nearly impossible to find your way across it safely without help? It’s a haunted place, a place associated with health – the fresh sea air, the old hydros and TB convalescent hospitals – and with death too: the danger of the shifting sands, the suicides and lost horses and carts out on the quicksands.”
And as if all of this isn’t enough to absorb, Fell finds Ashworth experimenting with time, as well as point of view. The ghosts of Jack and Netty narrate for us, in one voice, describing their past living selves in the third person, as their view of the house shifts uncontrollably from past to present and back. “The ghosts are haunting the house,” she tells me, “but the house is haunting them too.” Jack and Netty watch Annette move from room to room, stirring memories which the house projects within its walls. As the flashbacks overlap each other, it feels as though the house is a pool formed by converging rivers, with the different temporal currents flowing over each other.
No, this is not the stuff of a Jenn Ashworth novel. Many will not get what they bargained for. But Ashworth is an artist, not a performing seal. I ask her: does she really owe anyone anything? “Owe my readers? Yes – I owe them my best, and I owe them honesty. I can’t dial it in or write what I already know, and I have to follow the story and the sentences where they take me, even if it risks failure. This book is much sadder and more tender than my previous ones – I think all my sadness has gone into this story, and a bit of magic too, and as a writer who is more used to wit and humour, it feels like a vulnerable place to be. But that is what the novel taught me it needed while I was writing it.”
I’m reminded, strangely, of D.A. Pennebaker’s famous footage of Bob Dylan’s 1966 British tour. In Newcastle, backed by a full electric band, Dylan howls through his latest single ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ – a flawless, spirited rendition of perhaps his best ever song. The performance is raw, cutting, deeply felt, and it looks and sounds like a triumph – until the closing chord begins to fade, at which point a chorus of boos from the crowd begins to drown out the applause. Cut to interviews with fans filing out of the hall, lovers of Dylan’s folk masterpieces, venting their feelings of betrayal at his new musical direction: “It makes you sick listening to this rubbish now,” says one. And another: “Bob Dylan was a bastard in the second half.” Ashworth is taking a creative leap of her own. Does she fear this type of backlash? In the era of the internet, in which hot-headed readers can fire snarky comments directly at writers over social media, I admire her bravery.
But take a closer look at Fell, and you’ll see it less as a break from her past work, and more as a natural progression. For starters, the book stays within Ashworth’s favoured Northern English stomping grounds; the Cliffords live in Grange-over-Sands, a mere hour away from Ashworth’s birthplace in Preston. And consider her much-lauded wit. The Guardian wrote: “Who wouldn’t kill for a comic gift like Jenn Ashworth’s?” But this compliment throws a blanket over whole swathes of Ashworth’s novels (and a number of her excellent short stories) in which she is not playing for laughs. During those passages, what we’ve mistaken for comic timing is revealed as a broader talent for rhythm, one which serves to evoke any mood she seeks. Early in Fell, groggy from years of sleep and unused to their spirit forms, Jack and Netty fumble for words as they observe Annette using a mobile phone:
“Of course things have changed but this, the sleek shiny box swallowing up her words and sending them elsewhere, this is… but what does it matter?
“Her voice is.
“We’re lost for.
“Well, the fact is, we have not heard her speak for a long time.”
A reader waiting for a punchline might overlook the delightful sense of wonder in that passage.
Besides, this book could not have supported humour. Humour creates distance: in order to see the humour in a situation, we have to be able to stand outside of it. But Fell can’t keep us at bay. It is too emotive, too tender, too sincere. Ashworth’s comedy works as a wry commentary on the human condition; Fell’s characters are too kind, too decent, too quietly heroic, to make fun of – they are human, in the best sense of the word.
Armed with only her words, Ashworth manages to beat back the darkness with a story that glorifies human decency… The whole thing knocks me a little senseless.”
Perhaps parenthood has changed the way Ashworth writes. I have no doubt that my experience as a father tints my view of the book. I watch as the helpless spirits Netty and Jack fret over the woman their daughter has become: the product of their choices, good and bad, as parents. I think about my Miss Marie, thirteen now and hardening into the person she will be as an adult. As doting a father as I’ve been, I know the waves of guilt that can hit a parent without warning: could I have used some trick of discipline to derail her occasional stubbornness? Would her difficulties in communication have improved if I’d fought for better speech therapy years ago? I feel the familiar seasickness of my remorse as Jack and Netty watch a young Annette, standing alone at their gate, waving goodbye to a kindly former lodger:
We watch her and we wait with her and we crowd her by the gate and this time we do not leave her alone. We don’t. We don’t leave her alone. But it doesn’t matter now. It can’t help.
Ashworth tells me: “I guess I wanted to write about that kind of suffering – the suffering of loving someone and knowing you can’t protect them or help them. It is a special kind of torture we all – not just parents, but people who have loved – know.” This is the suffering of everyday people, and it’s in keeping with the book’s source material: Fell takes its inspiration from the Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon, a peasant couple who offer lodging to the gods Zeus and Hermes when all their wealthier neighbours have turned them away. “I get tired of reading about the heroic or the exceptional,” Ashworth says. “I’m much more interested in the middle-of-the-road, the ordinary, the flawed. I suppose I am more interested in humans than gods or monsters – and I think the Baucis and Philemon story captured my imagination because it is about ordinary hospitality.”
“Those are the people who I write about – and those are the people for whom I write.” And her goal with Fell? “That someone would read the book, find some ordinary decency and flawed, messy kindness in it – and notice how much of that they have themselves in their own lives and in their own character. I know as literary ambitions go it’s a very slim one, but it’s the only one I’ve been able to muster.”
It’s funny: to me, that’s about as ambitious as a writer can get. And she succeeds. Fell reaches me at precisely the point when I need it. From across an ocean, I’ve been watching my home country convulse with violence. At the same time, even in the quiet English countryside where I live, I’ve had to listen as the debate surrounding the recent Brexit vote descended into a cacophony of fearmongering and bigotry. On all sides, politicians bellow like the gods of old, hurling their lightning bolts at each other across the airwaves and Twitter. Against this epic, chaotic backdrop, I find it easy to slip into despair. But, bless her, Jenn Ashworth has found a way to counter all of that. Armed with only her words, Ashworth manages to beat back the darkness with a story that glorifies human decency. Where in her past novels we might have seen our own foibles amplified to sinister extremes, in Fell we follow characters – human beings – working, striving, loving, yearning, not always doing right by each other but always compelled to try. Flawed, yes, but ultimately redeemed. The whole thing knocks me a little senseless, so that for a brief moment everything around me takes on a soft, rosy glow.
Trying to communicate to Ashworth what her novel means to me, I bring up a quote that I keep in my wallet from Charles Reade. It reads: “Not a day passes over the earth, but men and women of no note do great deeds, speak great words, and suffer noble sorrows.” I know from her reply that I’ve made my point: “That quotation is going over my desk.”
Jenn Ashworth was born in 1982 in Preston. She studied English at Cambridge and since then has gained an MA from Manchester University, trained as a librarian and run a prison library in Lancashire. She now lives in Lancaster with her husband, son and daughter, and lectures in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster. Fell, A Kind of Intimacy, Cold Light and The Friday Gospels are all published by Sceptre. Read more.
Author portrait © Martin Figura
Brett Marie, also known as Mat Treiber, grew up in Montreal with an American father and a British mother and currently lives in Herefordshire. His short stories such as ‘Sex Education’, ‘The Squeegee Man’ and ‘Black Dress’ and other works have appeared in publications including The New Plains Review, The Impressment Gang and Bookanista, where he is a contributing editor. He recently completed his first novel The Upsetter Blog.
Facebook: Brett Marie