Vulpes Libris

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.

Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth

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

4 comments on “Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth

  1. Hilary
    March 5, 2012

    This is a discriminating and finely judged review, Rosy, but what I’d really like is to get a sense of what I might take away from this book if I read it. It sounds so totally unlike any novel I would choose to read for its subject matter and content, yet you’ve spoken of the unique atmosphere it engenders, and that is so intriguing! If read as a highly original thriller, does it work in those terms?

  2. RosyB
    March 5, 2012

    What a very interesting question. I’ve struggled a little in reviewing this book because I feel simultaneously quite strong, wildly divergent and contradictory emotions. That, in itself, I think is a very good thing and I – personally – am interested in reading books that challenge me like that.

    I don’t know if I am the best person to answer about thrillers as I don’t read many thrillers – nor do I really like them. So I am probably a rubbish reviewer in the circumstances! As for the thriller qualities of Cold Light…if you are looking for thrills and spills and lots of plot twists – no. I think it might disappoint on that score if you read it with that expectation. But then I don’t think that is what it’s trying to do.

    As a portrait of a time of life and of a particular place and introverted sensibilty that goes along with being 14 – I think this is where it excells. I feel it is a very intelligent idea and execution. But personally (grasping for a way of describing) I feel that the thesis is so dominant that maybe a trick is missed in terms of providing a different perspective that would have been allowed by the characters being ten years older. I know I would find it hard to look back on characters I knew at 14 without a very different perspective on the whole thing – and I think the idea of the older Lola looking back and seeing these characters as children with all the protectiveness, anger and forgiveness of that – is really missed. The characters seem a little frozen in amber across time to me. In a way, that is part of the thesis so I’m not saying she doesn’t know what she is doing here. But as I struggle to share the world view of the book, perhaps, I felt that the point of view needed some offsetting, ambivalence, undermining, unbalancing…whatever.

    I worry that this review comes across as a bit harsh because I’ve struggled hard to try and express certain things and I didn’t want it to be because I admire the writing so much and what is aimed for here is so high – and it could paradoxically come across as a more argumentative review than I would have done for a less interesting or complex book. But I feel that Jenn is such a good writer and I had engaged with the book in such a complex way that I wanted to try and get that across rather than write just standard review…I don’t know if I succeeded in that though!

  3. Lisa
    March 5, 2012

    “I’ve struggled a little in reviewing this book because I feel simultaneously quite strong, wildly divergent and contradictory emotions.”

    I was exactly like this when I reviewed the latest Miranda July book, so I do sympathise. Your review, for all of its criticism, does make the book sound really intriguing, as Hilary says. It’s interesting that you mention emotions because your reaction to the book did seem quite emotional in some places, and I could see that you were deeply affected by the writing. Which is a good thing. No “blah, blah, I’m not really bothered either way” type response in this review.

    I know Jenn Ashworth a little bit, from working with her on VL and interacting on writer forums, and she seems like a pretty tough cookie, so I’m sure she won’t be fazed by this review.

  4. Hilary
    March 5, 2012

    This was such a strong statement about the book, and that is what piqued my interest in a novel with a theme that in general would come some way behind a Chinese burn as my preferred entertainment. (I run a mile from teenage angst and cruelty). I think we maybe don’t get argumentative as often as we should, and reading your review, Rosy, put that in my mind. It’s an achievement of sorts for a piece of writing to matter so much that you want to argue!

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This entry was posted on March 2, 2012 by in Uncategorized.

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