A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Jenn Ashworth was a member of VL for a short while, so I already knew her to be an intelligent person who thinks deeply about writing. I now know her, also, to be an extremely able writer.
Without stylistic flourish, Cold Light employs a style that is very modern and quite of the moment – the pared down, perfectly judged, perfectly measured style of writing with little in the way of flowery words or descriptive flourishes. It’s a win-win: crafted yet very easy to read and you immediately find yourself immersed in Ashworth’s world.
In both her first book, A Kind of Intimacy, and this, her second novel, Jenn is a master of a very particular kind of atmosphere. Described elsewhere as “creepy” – this word is close, but doesn’t quite capture it. It is more a kind of painful uncomfortableness. Like a cringe. A peculiar disturbing cringe. The ability to create such a powerful feeling is the sign of a writer of power; a writer who has found “her thing”.
In both her novels, the writer sets up powerful openings and they share a number of elements: there is the sense of mystery about the past and they draw us in to feel ambiguous contradictory emotions about their central characters. In Cold Light the opening involves the accidental digging up of a body by an unsuspecting Mayor in a memorial ceremony. And the central character, about which we are invited to feel some ambiguity, is Chloe – a fourteen year old girl who has died ten years before, who has been sainted by the media, and is obsessed over by her then best friend, Lola – the narrator.
The depiction of Chloe at the beginning of the book is nothing short of brilliant. Blonde, small, sexually precocious, you can understand the dazzle of this girl to her friends – not particularly because of the above, but because she is bold and fearless. She gives them permission to break the rules and seems to offer some grubby glamour, some escape from the claustrophobic narrow teenage world they live in – for a short time at least.
Chloe dazzles and appears full of potential and possibility. Yet little details show the reality – her hair put into stylish tendrils with spit, for example. Scenes of her shoplifting for tat or pausing over accessories are wonderfully pitched; flashes of casual cruelty (isn’t 14 the worst age?) being perfectly observed. Ashworth, I thought, knows her teenagers.
I romped through the first third of the book thinking this was one of the smoothest, surest books I’d read for a long time – I was intrigued to know more about these characters and learn about their world, and I admired, if not exactly enjoyed, the disturbing cringe of Ashworth’s writing.
The problem with a book that is so well-written and as well observed and claustrophobic as Cold Light, is that you are led to expect certain things. Cold Light led me to expect psychological depth, insight into how human beings think and behave and an understanding of the way human beings tick. Whilst the external observation is extraordinary, it is in the internal observation that I began to have a few questions.
After a quite terrific first section, the characters – rather than opening out in complexity, instead seemed to narrow down. As the book enters the more standard thriller territory of paedophiles and killers and a somewhat unconvincing local television presenter, the pace began to slow considerably and the characters seemed to become less complex rather than more. To some extent, this may be the point the book is making: to show how perceptions of a person can be skewed and false or come to represent what they are not. However, in being so intent on this theme, the book appears to turn away from character and psychology and those “real” people behind the various perceptions.
That extraordinary portrait of Chloe – cruel and kind, dazzling and pathetic, precocious and naïve – shuts down rather than develops. Rather than showing the three dimensions behind the image, Ashworth goes the other way – reducing a potentially complex character to just two. It is a mutual friend, Emma, that seemed to have the most character development, but this feels a bit too little, too late.
It is clever, perhaps, to subvert our perception of youth and innocence, but without some compensation, the danger is that the result can feel clever and accomplished but, well, a little cold. At the end of the day, cleverly subversive of expectation or not, perhaps I simply don’t, or can’t, share the world view of this novel. Chloe’s character felt – at the end of the day – unrevealing, and I found it hard to believe that, after ten years, the grown woman who was once her friend wouldn’t have a different and perhaps more interesting perspective on her 14 year old friend.
I am the last person to want to trot out the Amercian model where everyone has to be “relatable” with piles of backstory to explain every motivation. I like unsympathetic characters. I like caricatures. But this book isn’t a comedy – despite the potential black farce of the opening and the book being billed as darkly comic.
Whilst the writing has a terrific power to it in terms of atmosphere and a sort of muffled mundane claustrophia, that atmosphere did begin to feel unremitting. I wanted some light to offset the grey, some kind moments to bring into relief the cruel ones, more humour and humanity to offset the horror. But, most of all, I wanted more insight, more understanding of the characters.
The fact that I was looking for, and expecting, insight says a lot about the quality of the writing. It wouldn’t have mattered if this had been a lesser book. But, Cold Light is so seamlessly written, so assured – that I was left speechless with admiration. For me, the characterisation in this book couldn’t quite live up to the writing. But if Ashworth could marry true psychological insight to her amazing ability to create such a uniquely powerful atmosphere, her wonderful telling observations and her skilful, assured writing-style – she could have something really special on her hands.
352 pages, Sceptre April 2011, ISBN-13: 978-1444721447