During my teenage years, I was just beginning at the widest part: I read anything I could get my hands on and finished every book whether I was enjoying it or not. In my late teens the funnel started to narrow as I began to specialise into what I found most useful, and now, as an adult, my reading life exists solely in the cylindrical tube you can find at the bottom of the funnel. I browse only two or three shelves in the library, ticking off what I have read in my File and ignoring everything else. Within this narrow confine I thought I would find everything I needed.
Let me just say a few words about this phenomenal book that has been out for a couple of days. I can’t remember when I’ve read a better debut.
On the cover of my edition Jenny Diski describes the novel as ‘a gripping, ever-darkening narrative’ – and that’s not the half of it. Overweight loner Annie Fairhurst buys a house in the suburbs and begins making an effort to integrate herself with the community. But she has a horrific past and when she recognises one of the neighbours as someone who helped her out in the dark times, things start rapidly unravelling.
With her dull whimsy and quotemarked colloqualisms, Annie’s narrative starts out as normal, even banal. Gradually we notice inconsistencies between Annie’s version of events and what’s actually going on: these gaps become wider until we realise that we are seeing the world through the narrow filter of a seriously disturbed mind. It’s a slow, terrifying realisation, and by the time you’ve experienced it, you will not be able to put the book down. The story beguils you, then holds you, then shakes you around like a rag doll.
I think Jenn Ashworth was influenced by Kazuo Ishiguro, and it shows: Annie’s skewed analysis and overformalised voice reminded me of the self-deluded, repressed butler in The Remains of the Day. She is a very ordinary monster along the lines of Frank Cauldhame and another Annie, Annie Wilkes. But there’s no sense that Ashworth’s trying to mimic her influences. The novel is tightly plotted, exquisitely paced, every word on trial for its life. It’s a story of provincial unhappiness, bad company in small rooms, the awful consequences of not being loved. And although the climax is fairly messy, Annie’s story ends on a note of self-awareness, and possibly hope.