Monday, August 10, 2009

Nasty Girls

I saw Jenn Ashworth read from her debut novel "A Kind of Intimacy" in Norwich last month, and I wanted to read the whole thing after that. It's a read in one sitting book, (or at least I did), though I found it a little uncomfortable to start with. From the start you are in the non-too pleasant mind of Annie, the novel's overweight heroine, a most unreliable of narrators. Because you meet Annie at her point of arrival (at her new home, her past behind her), there's quite a slowness to the start, like when you get the kids deciding whether to stay in the haunted house in a teen horror flick. Yet because of Annie's self-described unattractiveness, and her almost naked desire for attention from the very first page, its not the easiest of reads. Something wicked this way comes. I don't want to provide any spoilers, but Annie's not the nicest of women - as you get the sense from the first page, and from the blurb on the back cover - but as she's our guide, its quite an uncomfortable journey. In many ways this debut is a slightly diabolical inversion of a chick lit novel, kind of Bridget Jones with fangs, but after a lugubrious start, really comes into its own in the last third, where the past that she's escaping, and the future she's hurtling towards collide. On her acknowledgement's page, Ashworth thanks Anne Fine, and it reminds me a little of Fine's novel-for-adults "The Killjoy" about another unorthodox character with a character flaw. Both novels owe a little to a genre of stalker novels that we once thought began and ended with Fowles' "The Collector", and I suppose its against that novel's psychological depth it falls, inevitably, a little short, for there's not much rhyme or reason to Annie; she's neither a plausible victim of circumstance or an unexplained Iago. Yet Ashworth's prose has a shocking modernity to it, that is somewhat at odds with the setting, a dim Northern town (actually, Fleetwood), that seems to have no trappings of the present about it. Annie's a bit of a creation, and only puts into the shade some of the other characters, sit com staples mainly - the men in particular are charicatures. It used to be male writers who created unwholesome women characters, but the stiletto's on the other foot here, with Ashworth's heroine worthy of being played by Kathy Bates. A little more colouring in of the background characters, and it would be quite a debut, yet even with these limitations, there's an inescapable dark glee in what is a tale of sordid suburban squalor, a kitchen sink drama for the take-away generation.

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