Reviewed by Simon
The title of Jenn Ashworth’s fourth novel could mean any number of things – or, indeed, all of them. The first two that come to mind, as you start reading the novel, are the felling of a tree (the fate of two sycamores is in discussion) and falling to earth – because our narrators, we learn fairly quickly, are dead. Not in a Lovely Bones talking-from-Heaven style, but in an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-anxious away. This is how the novel opens:
Her key in the lock wakes us. It wakes the starlings too: they rise chattering out of the trees in the front garden and hurl themselves into the sky. They don’t fly far; before the door is open they have landed, disgruntled, on the roof ridge. We flutter at each other like leaves, finding the words for things, laughing, stiff as bark, too wooden to grab and hold on tight.
Yes. We are. We are. Dazed as newborns! The proprietors of this place. A respectable house. Netty. Jack. That’s what they called us.
This patched together style is only evident in the opening paragraphs, as Netty and Jack come to terms with the world again. And we are not so interested in the metaphysics of their presence, but in the events (past and present – though always in the present tense; this ceases to be an obstacle very quickly) that they observe.
The ‘she’ above is Annette, their daughter. She has recently inherited The Sycamores (for such is the name of the house), and is trying to work out what to do with it; the house has been long-abandoned, overgrown, and an emotional void that is clearly bringing back memories. By concentrating her efforts on a pair of recalcitrant trees, and a friendly if guarded tree surgeon, Annette can start to get to grips with the house – and with her life. She is alone – no family, no friends – and rather a pathetic figure. It is evident that the helplessly watching spirits, Jack and Netty (always acting, speaking, thinking as one in this spiritual form) feel guilt… what made Annette this way?
And this takes us to the other half of the novel, interwoven with the first; Jack and Netty flit from one to the other, seeing them concurrently. They are watching themselves, in their 40s, with Annette as a young girl. A young, neglected girl; Jack and Netty are entirely preoccupied with Netty’s illness: she is dying of cancer.
What Annette remembers is a man hitting her father, and then moving in with them. It wasn’t quite that. Jack approaches this man – Tim Richardson – at the side of a swimming pool while they are on holiday. I couldn’t work out quite why he identified or approached him (that might be me missing something), but in the middle of their conversation…
‘It’s the sun,’ Tim says, and grabs Jack’s face, roughly. For a brief moment – two or three seconds at the most – Tim’s fingers are pressing into his right cheek, his thumb into his left. He can smell the salt water on the boy’s skin, feel the coolness of his palm against his nose. The heat and light and the pain in his head subside and a vibration starts in his chest, a little thrum downwards, across his belly and upper thighs. Tim takes his hand away.
And, suddenly, Jack’s appalling eyesight is healed. Tim has, it seems, miraculous healing in his hands.
This is, of course, the answer to a desire that Jack and Netty wouldn’t even have dared to express – even though Netty was allowing their neighbour Candy to come with some old wives’ tales remedies every now and then. This man (though warning that he can promise nothing) seems more promising. (Incidentally, everybody – including Jack and Netty – seem a little sexually attracted to him; this aspect appears in rare hints, but is left only as hints.)
Tim moves into The Sycamores. This isn’t all that unusual – it is run as a boarding house, and Tim is purportedly paying his dues – but he is evidently there on the understanding that, when the moment is right, he will heal Netty.
From this premise, Ashworth weaves an extremely clever narrative; the reader is unsure for a long time whether Tim has genuine fantastic powers or if he is, somehow, conning them. Is he demonically cruel or the victim of his own ‘gift’? But even if one or other is accepted as truth, elements of both types of novel are there throughout Fell: the cuckoo in the nest, the imposter changing the dynamics of everybody’s lives – but also the healer, the hope, the presence of the miraculous. Ashworth combines the two brilliantly, and tensely, keeping the reader hooked on discovering the truth – even while they are equally hooked by the poignant observation of real people and the ways in which they live together, sharing their private lives while keeping some things private.
Ashworth has turned to diverse topics over her four novels so far – from an obsessive neighbour to Mormonism – but her hallmark is a sensitive, often wryly witty, view of the extraordinary amongst the ordinary. In writing her first novel that plays with the fantastic, she writes at her most assured – and finds, and illuminates, the intensely ordinary amongst the extraordinary.
Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors.
Jenn Ashworth, Fell (Sceptre, 2016). 978-1473630604, 304pp.
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