It Might Not Exist
By Ben Myers.
Cold Light, Jenn Ashworth, Sceptre 2011
There’s a darkness you get in many of the towns of Northern England. A sense of seething; the feeling that bad things are happening unseen. Maybe it’s the architecture and town-planning of places like Rochdale, Burnley, Blackburn or Preston — where, this, Jenn Ashworth’s second novel is set — places whose brutalist concrete utopian shopping centres, car parks and bus stations of the 60s and 70s have remained unchanged, save for the new plastic signage of the fast food joints that have sprung up in the meantime.
The real shopping happens elsewhere anyway: on the edge of town, in the vast corrugated hutches that make up the retail parks. More likely it’s to do with the socio-economics of post-industrial living. Cheap housing, neglected estates, rising unemployment, a proliferation of nullifying drugs, dysfunctional families and their ever-changing domestic arrangements all make for towns with so much potential and flashes of beauty, wit and hope, but ultimately subjugated by under-funded town councils and a government that might as well be a million rather than three hundred miles away. 1961, 1981, 2011 — not much has changed. This is England. The heartland of England.
It is this territory that Ashworth’s characters stalk and fester. Her excellent debut novel A Kind Of Intimacy tracked the the darkening delusions of Annie, a part-time plaything for seedy men with a thing for women of size, and full-time, curtain-twitching, scissor-wielding smalltown sociopath. In Cold Light, the town’s hinterlands or social spaces take centre stage as much any character — the car parks, parks, pond, dingy flats, shopping centre. At one point, protagonist Lola notes that “the rest of the country is a vague, fuzzy place. It might not exist” and it is this sense of oppressive parochialism that Ashworth does best. Throughout the tale is the omnipresent Terry — exactly the type of local news anchor legend that each region has, and who casts an almost godlike, editorialising gaze over proceedings, his daily broadcasts acting as kind of Greek chorus to the unfolding events.
And what are the proceedings? Well, it’s winter and there is a masked flasher at large. Young girls are getting grabbed and groped and a vigilante group has formed in response. Also a young mentally challenged man has gone missing and his football has been spotted frozen into the ice of the pond. And all the while fourteen-year-old Lola is trying to maintain her friendship with precocious and manipulative friend Chloe, who has a much older boyfriend, Carl, while at the same time trying not to be suffocated by the oppressive domesticity created by her overbearing mother and feckless, delusional father.
Cold Light is a story of friendship and consequences and secrets buried deep into the soil or encased in ice. It covers that time when the innocence of youth begins to slip; when the importance of panty liners and shoplifting lip gloss are overtaken by more serious events. It is a plot that twists and turns as shadows creep into the edge of each advancing page, and bad things happen that will impact upon Lola for years to come.
Ashworth does this creeping tension extremely well. She understands the darkness that lies in the familiar, that tragic events can reverberate through communities and that at the heart of many small towns are dark secrets. Nothing is ever quite how it seems.
There’s a sense that Cold Light could do with some pruning; the final third seems geared towards a conclusion that is a long time coming and the newsreader character somewhere does not quite convince.
But the story is nevertheless strong and Ashworth at her best when describing the everyday minutiae of things — clothes that smell of wet towels, frozen white winter skies overhead, the sadness of a young woman drinking a box of wine in a shabby flat. This is modern kitchen sink realism, a place where few adjectives are wasted. Her characters are archetypes that any reader can identify with: the older lad with the car grooming the young girls with free lifts and cigarettes, the bitchy Miss Popular of the classroom, the local celebrity broadcaster, and other big fish also vying for space in the small pond.
Ultimately Cold Light lifts the lid on the normal and finds that really there is no such thing. Scratch the surface of any street in England and you’ll find stories; Jenn Ashworth understands this and her ability to weave together different narratives strands and sub-plots in this taut northern tale, while always holding attention, is exemplary. Not yet thirty, you sense that she will have many more such stories to come.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Ben Myers is a regular contributor to 3:AM and other publications including Mojo, The Guardian and NME. His latest novel Richard will be published in mass market paperback in October 2012 by Picador. His new novel is coming in 2012. Read our latest interview with him here.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, May 30th, 2011.