Mournful and meticulous

16 July 2016

9:00 AM

16 July 2016

9:00 AM

After a curtain-twitching cul-de-sac, a Preston shopping precinct, and the Church of the Latter-Day Saints brought to Lancashire, Jenn Ashworth ups sticks for the seaside in her fourth novel. Set in the determinedly genteel resort of Grange-over-Sands, just across the bay from Morecambe on the Cumbrian coast, Fell is a disturbing, precisely rendered tale of charisma, misplaced faith and transgenerational trauma, with a touch — not too heavy-handed, fortunately — of the supernatural.

This is the same part of the world as that of Andrew Michael Hurley’s gothic prize-winner The Loney, and both novels make great use of the treachery of the tides, the beaches that can disappear beneath the water in an instant, as ‘gullies and channels shift’, and ‘the sands run like mercury: no one can trace the same path across them twice’. But Fell also brings to mind the claustrophobic, suburban world of Dennis Potter’s great play Brimstone and Treacle, in which a devastated and vulnerable household is breached by a mysterious, sexually charged stranger.

The house in this case is The Sycamores, home to Jack and Netty Clifford and their daughter Annette, still a child but intensely alive to the encroachments and silences of her mother’s terminal illness. Soon, the family’s lodgers — young men issued with a standard brown towel, given their breakfasts each morning, a blind eye turned when they come home late on a Friday — are sent on their way. All except for one: the uncategorisable, unnerving and blandly named Timothy Richardson. After apparently ‘curing’ Jack’s failing eyesight during a chance encounter, Tim pitched up with a pair of rabbits and a winning way and never left; now, he keeps Jack and Netty hovering between hope and despair as they wait for his sporadic gift to make an appearance.

The novel shifts between this unspooling narrative, in which the reader can only expect the inevitable catastrophe but nonetheless, like Jack and Netty, is fooled into clinging to hope, and the present day. Here, we meet an adult Annette as she returns, now in her fifties, to her parents’ dilapidated house; as she begins, fairly ineptly, to tackle it, their spirits flit around, protectively, helplessly, desperately.

If this sounds hokey, it really isn’t. The woo-woo elements of the novel (Tim really does seem to have some paranormal capabilities, rather than being a pure chancer) function effectively as metaphors — for transience, regret, our desire to hold on to the insubstantial.

Annette is a blank, rootless character because her life has been so porous; squidged into the family’s domestic quarters, shunted aside during her mother’s decline, co-opted into the shiny new life of her father and stepmother. Each character’s hidden desires roil beneath the surface, threatening to burst into life at any moment. And the writing is so sharp and vivid: the relentless damp of the house, then and now, ‘dust puffing out from the rotting settee’, a painful confrontation between Jack and a former lodger over a drunken game of darts, cigarettes exchanged against the noise of ‘gas hissing through the lighter’. It is meticulous and mournful at the same time, a thoroughly involving and suggestive novel.

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