Cold Light (2011) by Jenn Ashworth
Cold Light is both a coming-of-age story and a murder mystery of sorts. Our protagonist, Laura, is a lonely 24-year-old cleaner in an anonymous Northern city, and we meet her as she sits down to watch the televised unveiling of a memorial to her former 'best friend', Chloe, who died ten years before. The story then spools back to the events of that winter, with Laura - who then called herself Lola - narrating her story as a confused teenager. She is caught between a depressing life at home with her distant mother and mentally ill father, and her all-consuming idolatry of Chloe, who in fact is often manipulative, spiteful and cruel. Chloe, in turn, is under the spell of her menacing older boyfriend, Carl. We know the story is progressing towards some sort of tragedy, as the fact of Chloe's death is made plain from page one, but Jenn Ashworth does a good job of keeping the reader guessing about how and why this happens, with various secrets staying under wraps right to the very end.
You can certainly tell Ashworth is a child of the early 80s, and she's got many of the details of teenage life in the late 90s spot on. (Even the names - have you ever met a shy or geeky Chloe? The name practically exudes a uniquely teenage kind of glamour.) I laughed when, for example, Lola described Chloe's hairstyle on a date with Carl; 'Her hair was scraped back into a scrunchie, apart from two long strands at the front. She'd wet those with spit and curled them around her finger.' Teen girls of the 90s, summed up in just one hairdo. Lola isn't a hugely likeable character, but her narrative voice is wholly believable as that of a 14-year-old. The style often recalls Anne Fine's The Tulip Touch, one of my favourite children's books, with the twisted relationship between Lola and Chloe mirroring that of Natalie and Tulip (and as Ashworth is a similar age to me, I can't help but wonder if she read this book as a child too, and might have been influenced by it).
The blurb for Cold Light says there's 'a surreal edge to its portrait of a northern town'; it's surreal all right, but whether it's successful in this is another matter. 'The City', as Lola calls it throughout the story, is weirdly self-contained, with residents rarely leaving its confines. There's the odd detail of a local newsreader who mysteriously exerts a powerful influence over the community, which feels like it would fit more comfortably into a US-based story and doesn't ring true of an English town. Similarly, the idea that the streets would be completely empty at night because of a flasher exposing himself to teenage girls would make far more sense if the story was set in a small, isolated village (is this mass reaction really plausible for a city?) It doesn't add up that Lola is so prejudiced and ignorant about Wilson's disabilities, given her own father's significant mental health problems. And I also found it hard to believe that the entire city would still be so obsessed with Chloe ten years after her death; I know some tragedies linger in the public consciousness longer than others, but if the people of the City were so keen to turn vigilante against a flasher, I'm pretty sure they wouldn't romanticise a relationship between a 14-year-old girl and a 29-year-old man.
I'd been looking forward to reading this book for months, and was delighted to find a copy in the library. Given my anticipation, I felt somewhat let down by it. Aside from the last few chapters, it often reads like YA fiction, as opposed to adult fiction about teenagers, which might be an advantage for some readers, but wasn't what I was looking for (Mary Horlock's The Book of Lies did it much better). It has all the right ingredients for something darkly intriguing, but somehow, all the interesting elements never quite come together and in places it feels dull and flat. That said, there was something about it that compelled me to read on, and I'm no less interested in Ashworth's other work - I still think her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, looks potentially excellent. Cold Light, meanwhile, is a good - but not great - read with a lot of weak patches and some solid redeeming features; not brilliant, but certainly worth a look.