A Kind of Intimacy (2009) by Jenn Ashworth
This deliciously creepy and insinuating novel, Jenn Ashworth's debut, is the story of Annie Fairhurst - as told by this fascinating, contradictory and wholly unreliable character herself. We meet Annie, who is seriously overweight and struggles to interact with others, as she moves - alone - into a new neighbourhood. At first Annie seems to be a fairly ordinary, if rather sad, character. She is lonely, with no family, and appears to have a traumatic past; she is desperate to make friends with her new neighbours, but is completely misguided in how she goes about this, relying heavily on the clichéd and outdated advice of self-help books. She also develops an infatuation with the man next door, Neil - who has a beautiful young girlfriend - almost immediately. But very quickly, it becomes apparent that Annie is unbalanced and her account cannot be trusted. As her crush on Neil grows into an obsession, and she becomes convinced of a dangerous rivalry with his girlfriend Lucy, Annie's behaviour spirals into a series of increasingly bizarre incidents - all seen through the warped lens of her own disturbed mind.
There were points when I did wonder if the plot could have been more subtle. I think, for example, the story might have worked better if Ashworth had established Annie as an honest, trustworthy and likeable character and revealed her true nature at a slower pace; if she had played with the reader's perceptions more. Instead, the reader knows within the first couple of chapters that Annie is both disturbed and dishonest. But the method of delivery is effective, as the protagonist intermittently delves into scenes from her past that gradually allow her audience to piece together the reasons for her present situation. It must have taken tremendous effort to maintain the style throughout - relating everything in Annie's distinctive voice, so naive and out of touch with her surroundings yet so subtly menacing, while also clearly communicating the reality of each incident to the reader. There are shocking developments - the seedy secrets of Annie's past could easily seem bizarrely out of sync with her delusions about Neil and Lucy's relationship - but somehow, in context, these work, perhaps because for most of the book Ashworth manages to balance Annie's madness and her humanity with enviable skill.
While Annie can't exactly be called a sympathetic character - her deviance is hinted at too heavily from the very beginning - the power of Ashworth's writing lies in the way she's taken traits many lonely people will identify with and exaggerated them to a wince-inducing degree. The modification and embellishment of one's past during conversations; the disproportionate emphasis placed on small encounters with someone you find attractive; the over-enthusiastic celebration of new potential friendships; the descent from healthy eating, to microwave meals, to piles of snacks eaten in bed. While it's difficult to like Annie, it's equally impossible not to feel sorry for her and, at points, to feel like you're on her side. This is emphasised by the fact that there are many shades of grey in the earlier half of the novel - Annie is not 'bad' and the other characters 'good'. Lucy isn't likeable, and is unpleasant towards Annie from the beginning for no reason other than her weight and the fact that she doesn't immediately fit in - which of us that's ever felt 'different' can't identify with that? Sangita does seem two-faced, Raymond is horrible and Will is boring and suffocating. None of this excuses Annie's eventual actions or explains her distorted perspective, but it does help to portray her as a painfully human character.
A Kind of Intimacy is an ideal companion piece to one of my favourite books of the year - Ross Raisin's God's Own Country - and in many ways, Annie is the female equivalent of Raisin's Sam Marsdyke. Both books start out as a portrayal of a lonely, isolated young person with a murky past and a suggested history of violence; both see said character developing an obsessive and delusional infatuation with a neighbour; both build to a quite terrifying climax, and end... similarly (to say more would spoil things for those planning to read either book). I'm certainly glad I read this after Ashworth's inferior sophomore novel, Cold Light - if I'd read A Kind of Intimacy first, my expectations would have been sky-high for any follow-up. This book has its flaws (it occasionally flounders slightly), but it's extraordinarily powerful and darkly funny throughout, and so much of the story has really stuck in my head since I finished it. A worthy addition to my collection of favourite unreliable narrators.