One of the consequences of knowing quite a number of writers is that it adds to the pile of "must read" books, and sometimes a novel slips through the gaps. "Cold Light", Ashworth's second novel came out in 2012, so this is tardiest of reviews (a 3rd "The Friday Gospels" remains on the "to be read" pile.) Like her debut "A Kind of Intimacy", she's set the book in and around Preston, that forgotten Lancashire town ("city" now as the novel reminds us), north of Manchester. "Cold Light" focusses on the death ten years before of two young lovers Chloe and Carl, who drowned on Valentine's Day, apparently in a lover's pact. Ten years on a memorial is being built to remember them, but the day of civic pride digs up more than the memories of the past, when a body is inadvertently disturbed. Lola (Laura), who was Chloe's best friend, watches with fascination as the charismatic local TV presenter, a brilliantly described nonentity in a pink shirt, Terry, gets to revisit the biggest event to hit Preston since the last Preston Guild (the big festival that Preston perversely celebrates only every 20 years), a series of sexual abductions of young girls that led into the few months before Chloe died.
Set in the nearly-pre-internet world of the mid-nineties, the narrator is Lola, the unloved best friend, who - like Annie in "A Kind of Intimacy" has a certain dogged certainty about her, without that character's macabre element. For Lola, and Chloe's other friend Emma both have memories and secrets that the last ten years they've hid away from even themselves. Emma has never moved on from the memories of the sex attacker, whilst Lola at 14 found herself stumbling into terrible misunderstandings of what actually went on, particularly when, Wilson, a "mong" that Carl chased into the wood, goes missing and gets blamed for the sex attacks.
Lola is in her own way as fascinating as Annie, for she struggles with the unhappiest of home lives. Her mother Barbara is at the end of her tether, an older mother who is also a carer for Donald, who appears to have serious delusions, a kind, but bewildered man who is "a bit soft". The majority of the novel is shown in flashback. The modern world that Lola inhabits is a drab one, she's a cleaner in a shopping centre, time having stopped with Chloe. Yet those flashbacks are themselves fragmentary, as Ashworth withholds the details of a relatively small plot, and instead concentrates on the psychological interiors of her main characters. In describing the terrors of girlhood friendship, she gives the most vivid school scenes since David Mitchell's "Black Swan Green", whilst the scenes with Donald at home are poignant and painful at the same time. Lola is unable to escape school in her home life, and unable to escape home life at school. Her friendship with the popular but wild Chloe has given her rationale for being, yet even before Carl comes on the scene (and Emma, whose role in the girl's threesome is, to Lola, purely as disrupter of her friendship with Chloe), the intensity of their friendship is both believable and worrying. For Chloe likes being looked at, likes being the centre of attention. She is the import from another school and rather than hang out with the popular girls, picks up Lola as a devoted number two. When Chloe shoplifts, it is Lola who gets caught. Yet if Chloe has insouciance her more middle class parents cannot connect with her at all. They are unaware that Chloe is seeing Carl; Chloe using Lola's devotion as a cover. For a while you feel that Carl is just that older boy with a car that is the usual rite of passage, but bit by bit he becomes darker, more controlling. The adult Lola would surely be able to pick up on the threads of the story, but she's still infantilised by what has happened, so we get the younger Lola's perspective - caught up between the impossible loyalties of teenager years.
Whereas "A Kind of Intimacy" had a sometimes underdeveloped supporting cast, the other characters here are all well drawn, from Terry, the local celebrity, to the dreadful Carl, to the various parents. There's a genuine deftness about the way the three girls interact, each of them bringing to the equation their own weaknesses and strengths. Whilst Lola gets to go out as chaperone to Chloe and Carl, and has been given an old mobile by the latter, she has no real understanding of the psychodrama that is going on. The one weak point, I think, is the way that Wilson is introduced. He is conveniently chatty when Lola is told to leave Chloe and Carl in the car and "keep watch", but this initial conversation quickly escalates, as we later find out, into something tragic. As the local weirdo, he's a bit too convenient a fall guy, yet how else would the 14-year old Lola have come across him?
The novel's intensity increases as we come to its final quarter, as the past becomes real again - the whole scene of Chloe's memorial acts as some kind of "trigger warning" for Chloe - but as the various lies and betrayals that led to tragedy come clearer, the humour that's there in much of the fumbling teenage scenes disappears, as the story becomes much, much darker. Despite its domestic settings, it edges towards some intense gothic horror, as we see through Chloe's eyes what really happened. The "missing girl" seems a too common trope of early 20th century fiction but here its grounded in a mundane reality which perversely gives it much of its gothic power.
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