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.
Alluring, ephemeral and deadly, Morecambe Bay dominates the coastal areas of south Cumbria and north west Lancashire. No-one who has ever travelled by train between Oxenholme and Lancaster can forget that stretch of line between Carnforth and Hest Bank which, for a short distance, runs parallel with the salt marshes which fringe the Bay, revealing it in all its stark beauty.
It’s an estuary: the point at which five rivers debouch into the Irish Sea, depositing sand and silt in ever-shifting configurations and creating in the process the largest expanse of intertidal mudflats in the UK.
The Kent is one of those rivers. It flows into Morecambe Bay between Arnside and the one-time fashionable watering hole of Grange-over-Sands. At one time, it actually ran past the town’s mile-long promenade, but over the years the channel migrated south, leaving in its wake mudflats and quicksands which eventually became meadows – upon which small flocks of sheep now graze.
But the Bay never stops moving. Like living organisms, the silt and sand morph and shift – sometimes overnight in bad weather - and there are now signs that the Kent may be moving back towards Grange again.
The only permanent thing about Morecambe Bay is its impermanence … and that feeling of transience and never-ending change suffuses Jenn Ashworth’s Fell.
It tells a strange and unsettling story which drifts between past and present and is narrated by the ghost of two of the central characters: Jack and Netty Clifford. I say ‘ghost’ singular, because this is singular ghost. It speaks as one person – ‘We’. They can see everything. They can move back and forth through time. More than that, they discover that they are privy to what people are thinking. They are, in fact, the ‘voice of God’ narrator with added insight.
They’re awakened, or dragged back into incorporeal being if you prefer, by the arrival at the old family home of their daughter Annette. She has just inherited the house following the death of Jack’s second wife, Candy.
Annette is a pitiful creature – lonely, middle-aged, beaten down by life and behind on the rent – and watching her, Netty and Jack realize that THEY are at least partially responsible for her plight.
With them as our guide, we are led back and forth between past and present to watch as the last few painful months of Netty’s life are played out.
The Cliffords run a boarding house in Grange and devote nearly all of their time and attention to their (exclusively young, male) boarders. Little Annette is left to amuse herself as best she can. But Netty has advanced cancer and eventually the boarders are sent away. All, that is, except one.
Jack first met Timothy Richardson when the family was spending a day at Grange Lido. In a startling encounter, the young man had restored Jack’s failing eyesight. He is, it turns out, a healer: but there is nothing ethereal or other-worldly about him. His gift – if such it is – is haphazard, unpredictable, and largely unwanted.
Jack, driven to desperation by his wife’s rapidly failing health, believes that Richardson can save her, and the young man moves into The Sycamores – the family home – staying on when all the others have left.
In the present, meantime, Annette is struggling with the hopelessly dilapidated house, which is not only riddled with damp and rot but also threatening total collapse because its foundations are being undermined by the two huge sycamore trees from which it takes its name. She has the sense to realize that the trees must be dealt with by a professional, and calls in a tree surgeon.
And thus the stage is set for a haunting story of loss, regret, fading hope and the impermanence of all things – all played out against the timeless backdrop of Morecambe Bay.
It would have been entirely too easy for a story with supernatural undertones and featuring someone with healing powers to have lurched into Grand Guignol, but Jenn Ashworth is far too good a writer for that. By keeping it all grounded in the closely observed minutiae of everyday life and making her characters solid and recognizable, she anchors the unsettling strangeness in that which is mundane.
Timothy Richardson is a chancer: a wide boy who likes to keep moving and always has one eye on the next nice little earner. His ‘gift’ is more of a curse, out of his control and frequently surfacing when he doesn’t want it to, often in deeply disturbing ways. It isn’t really clear to us who or what he is and what his intentions truly are … but then, it isn’t clear to him either. He’s an enigma even to himself, but is nevertheless recognizably a young man on the make, just trying to make his way in a hostile world.
Netty on the other hand is a very ordinary, bustling little woman who tries never to get too involved in her own, or indeed anyone else’s, life and instead just puts her head down and carries on cooking, cleaning and knitting until her body falls apart on her – realizing far too late that she should have paid more attention to her young daughter.
It’s Annette, however, who is at the heart of Fell. At first, she’s almost a cipher, just a vaguely defined vehicle for a collection of attitudes and memories – most of them negative. As the story progresses, though, and we learn about her lonely childhood, her friendship with Tim and her equivocal relationship with her step-mother, she’s fleshed out bit by bit until by the end we begin to see a fully-rounded and likeable human being and even allow ourselves to believe that life may not, after all, have ground her down irretrievably.
Although Fell dwells much on impermanence and change, neither of those are necessarily undesirable things and this is not, at heart, a depressing novel – far from it. Life is about learning to cast yourself adrift, let go of the past and move on, and in the end that’s what the Cliffords and Tim Richardson all do. In the end, that’s really all any of us can do.
Sceptre (An imprint of Hodder & Stoughton). 2017. ISBN-978-1-473-63062-8. 292pp. (Also in hardback.)