Prompted by Jenn Ashworth ‘s lively and expansive talk at Horwich’ s Thyme Coffee Shop, (hosted by the Thyme to Read Book Group), I downloaded Ashworth’s most recent novel Fell, onto my kindle. On this first time reading, although I was acutely aware of the insightful intelligence that shaped the narrative, I didn’t warm to the characters very much, finding them more distant, than engaging. I felt that the sixties’ stoicism of the protagonists flattened their appeal, so they seemed sepia tinted , a ‘ foreign country’ where things were definitely other, without inspiring the reader to care in the ways I felt Ashworth wanted us to care. Fell felt bleak to me on every level. The practice of hope seemed consigned to the rubbish bin of delusion. Fell seemed more a narrative of the mind than the heart and I so as an antidote to the greyness of Fell, I reread Joanna Cannon’s refreshingly witty, (and alive) The Trouble with Goats and Sheep and basked once again in a most spirited, evocation of suburban secrets.
But now reading Fell again, I am enjoying the novel’s grim brightness and I am smiling at the farcical and all too limited powers of the ghost narrators. In fact, Ashworth’s ghostly observers reveal the irony of revisitation. They remain vaguely supportive(as in life) but even in death their preoccupation with each other and the house, dominates. Death doesn’t give us as much knowledge as we might have hoped for! Thus the spectral narrators watch on as their neglected daughter haplessly attempts to revive her old home and (find a life worth living for herself.
We expected her to come home to us eventually but we never thought it would take her so long. We never thought at all, if we’re really being honest. It was a no-time, a dark-time, until the key in the lock jangled us back to the trees. But there she is, breathing in the stale air.
Ashworth evokes the after life as some place of non- aware loitering, where waiting is eventually overtaken by some form of return to the left behind life and activity, but without any power to do any more than witness events. Jack and Netty in death, seem like De la Mare’s famous Listeners in the poem of that name. They watch their lonely middle aged daughter wander about their old house with curiosity, but remain as much concerned with the fate of the decaying house as they do with the trials of their isolated daughter. The dead grapple with naming things again and this delights the readers- all watchers too! After all, the couple are definitely dead so why would they need words for daily practcial events? ! A truly inspired thought!
Her voice is.
We’re lost for.
Well, the fact is, we have not heard her speak for a long time.
This is a delightfully grim yet playful premise and I did enjoy the way in which both the living and the dead rummage about in language in order to make sense of their world, yet find themselves shortchanged, as we all do, alive or dead!
Interestingly, life in Ashworth’s world is disappointing. The geographical setting of Grange Over Sands, yields only sombre sea side landscapes with very little interjection of summer. Like Andrew Hurley’s The Loney, the setting has a dispiriting character of its own. Fell is a world fallen from grace, fallen from hope and gifted instead with a dailinesss not unlike endurance.The meeting between Annette’s father Jack and the strange boy- healer Timothy Richardson, is one of the most striking scenes in the novel. We are at the local lido, an open air swimming pool where boys take to the diving board to perform acrobatic tricks in an effort to impress their captive spectators. Jack notices one particular boy with curly hair. His wife Netty notices him noticing too:’ you know full well who’, she laughs, and then points with the opener,’ that one there.’Here we are aware of the teasing understanding that exists between husband and wife. They are complicit in their fascination with the theatrical boy swimmer. Ashworth cleverly delays the meeting for a short while, as Jack buys ice cream, in order to restore an ordinary rhythm to the narrative before he is beguiled(andthen abruptly healed) by the fresh, smiling boy.Jack’s intial attempt at masculine bluffness in the presence of the boy and the group, expose him to the near humiliation of their subtle derision. Yet one boy smiles at Jack and this changes everything. Jack is baptised anew.…for a moment Jack is completely refreshed; the stickiness of the day blown away...Jack is right and wrong about the power of the boy’s freshness. Interestingly, it is the freshness/ambivalence of the boy which forms the source of fascination for much of the narrative. The reader ( and the characters who surround him) debate whether the boy is in fact an authentic healer, or whether he an opportunist, a calculating exploiter of Jack’s subtly suggested homoeroticism, (‘ come here,’ Tim says) as well as his wife’ s terminal illness.( Jack) already knows he would like to happen again. He buries that thought…’Jack is healed by Tim. His poor vision is miraculously cured. But I am not sure that Tim’s effect on Jack remains limited to physical healing. Tim jolts Jack into some other version of himself. A self he does not admit directly. Instead he veils his own attraction behind Netty’ s illness and invites Timothy to tea, convincing himself that ‘he’d taken some swift decisive action there.‘Ashworth reveals our self deceiving core, ironising our self conviction and indirect selfishness.‘He stares at every Orange and purple inch of it, waiting until there’s not an ounce of light left on the horizon.Jack’s healing renders him elated. He tests his new way of seeing, extracting pleasure from the dying light. The reader recognises the painful contrast between Jack’s dramatic redemption and Netty’ s progressive, debilitating suffering. The description of the fading horizon foreshadows his wife’s death. We never quite understand the reticence of Timothy as regards his attempt to heal Netty.He remains preoccupied with his own ambitions as a tailor, so he defers helping Netty until she is clearly beyond anything except death. This didn’t quite seem credible.I did not quite believe Timothy’s presence would be tolerated without some effort to heal his hostess. I suppose it only worked if we accepted that his youthful charm and energy diverted his hosts in ways that they didn’t need to acknowledge. So the jury remained out on Timothy. Miracles are hit and miss in Ashworth’s haunting world. More miss actually.Faith is an absurd last resort of the desperate and deluded. Even Timothy found his talents diffiuclt to assess.However, I liked Ashworth’s refusal to reach a verdict on Timothy Richardson. Like Swiveller in Dickens’ Old Curiosity Shop, he exceeeds his expectations. Like Swiveller, he grew into someone who could take over the book if others had not got there before him. Perhaps he will recur. He didn’t seem to be finished with somehow. He was even enigmatic to himself!In Fell, as in life, we don’t find out all the answers.
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