Having read Jenn Ashworth’s first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, over a wet weekend in Preston, I actually bought the hardback of Cold Light. So it needed to be good.
Cold Light reflects on our ‘peculiar, stranded little city,’ and there is an eerie sense of seeing familiar places in a new way. Now that the parks and the city have had Ashworth’s light pointed at them, I’ll never see them the same way again.
The story is seen through the eyes (or internal thoughts anyway) of Lola, as a fourteen-year-old and now ten years later, looking back on unspeakable events and the pain of growing up not knowing what is true and what is real. We know from the outset that things are grim and that there have been dark deeds but this is the kind of book that compels you to go on a journey to try and find out why. Or, to be more precise, a series of short journeys between a dysfunctional home and various cold car parks.
Ashworth tests us with a variety of unreliable views. Lola herself narrates many events without having witnessed them and creates a strange feeling that nothing is quite as it seems. She is angry at everyone including her comical parents (Barbara and Donald, not Mum and Dad) but deeply craves love and attention especially from “best friend” Chloe, who will always be fourteen. Much of the story is told with the concentration on detail that we lose as an adult and we feel that somehow part of Lola also died at fourteen.
We see the same events as described by local TV presenter Terry, more of a fixture in some people’s lives than their families, whose version of events is equally unreliable, yet more palatable. Terry becomes as important a character as family members and shows us something about the way we are shown at the world. In his version of the world, innocence and evil have been reversed or at least muddled.
Lola’s own words tell us what is really going on…doing violence to the way things really are in order to make the story work can be addictive…it makes you feel safe. Sadly we never really get to feel safe. Somehow though, the journey is made worthwhile, perhaps through the gentle way Ashworth points out the comedy in the details of family life and the through the believability of her characters (even though most of what they say means something completely different).
The conflict that all fiction has to be about (it’s the law), exists in Cold Light, not in the events that happen but in the way we look at them. And the way that Ashworth looks at things is as dark as the bus station in midwinter. The battles that take place are not the real life drama but the internal struggle to understand and accept.
But underneath there is another story, maybe even something hopeful. Donald is losing his grip on reality, a grip that none of the characters hold firmly, yet his obsession with bioluminescence seems to have a purpose and suggests that he might protect his daughter from the darkness. It’s possible to even hope that there may be some other kind of light, some glimmer amongst the loss and the sadness and the despair… But then again, it may just be another kind of cold light.
So just in case the awful media world that Terry represents causes the demise of the printed word, go and buy this book and find a nice bench in Cuerden Valley Park or Avenham Park. Failing that the light is just right in Preston bus station.
John D Rutter is a short story writer currently working on a collection, and has recently started an MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster.
Jenn Ashworth is a writer, editor and teacher. Her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy was included in the Waterstone’s New Voices promotion and short-listed for Sam Jordison’s Not The Booker Award at The Guardian. In 2010 it got a Betty Trask award from the Society of Authors. Her second novel, Cold Light, was published by Sceptre in 2011.
Jenn’s most recent of many contributions to LWH was an interview with A J Duggan in January 2011.