Fell – The Making Of

By Jenn Ashworth

 

Fell arrived out of the blue. Just one scene. It happens like that sometimes. The scene was this: Jack, Netty and their daughter Annette are sitting on the concrete terraces over Grange-over-Sands old lido on a hot afternoon in August. I saw it all before I wrote it: the murky dark blue of salt water pool, the glare of the sun giving Jack the worst headache he’s ever had, and Netty watching a good looking young man swim lengths of the pool like a sleek white dolphin.

As soon as I started to write these details down (they demanded to be written – it’s a clich√©, I know, but it was also true for me) the character spoke and moved and acted: Netty was sick and Jack was worried about her overdoing it. Annette went down to the lido to swim and Netty was worried about her, in the pool with the big boys who were messing about. Netty sent Jack to ask the boys to calm down an the strangest thing of all happened: this beautiful strange boy who introduced himself as Timothy Richardson (where did the names come from? I don’t know) laid a hand on Jack’s face and not only wiped away his headache – as if by magic – but cured in one fell stroke his life-long short sightedness.

What happened next? I typed in order to find out. Jack was nearly struck dumb with the shock of the strange healing – but not dumb enough to fail to seize the opportunity and to ask Timothy to come home with him and take a look at Netty. The doctors can’t help her, he says, but perhaps there’s something you can do for her…? The scene ended there.

I didn’t write anything else for six months. But these characters waited at the lido and I was tormented with questions about them. What was wrong with Netty? Did Annette know her mother was sick? How seriously was she sick? Who was Timothy Richardson and had he really cure Jack, or was it just a trick? Would he be able to help Netty, and if he could, what would he ask in return? Would the price, whatever it was (and there is always a price – I knew enough about angels-in-disguise to know that) be worth paying?

I spent days and days at Grange-over-Sands, looking at the boarded up and now derelict lido and inhaling the salt-and-mud smell of the unbiddable, dangerous Morecambe Bay. I travelled to London and spent a day on Savile Row speaking to cutters and tailors and watching them chalk outlines of suit jackets and trousers on rolls of grey cloth. I visited a retired nurse who told me what caring for someone dying at home was like in the early 1960s, before chemotherapy, before palliative care, before the hospice movement.

A few months later I went back to the scene, and started to write. I didn’t have much of a plan, which meant tonnes and tonnes of drafts, following my nose, and letting characters and the landscape they lived in shape the structure and tone and plot of the novel. In an early draft, Timothy Richardson, the butchers boy and aspiring tailor from Edinburgh, had an entire backstory: much of that was cut because in the end I wanted him to be as mysterious to the reader as he had been to me. After a few drafts, the ‘frame’ of the novel developed – a present day strand where grown-up Annette returns to her parents’ empty house in Grange and attempts to come to terms with her past, with the stories her parents never told her, with the magic she was never allowed to see. She isn’t quite haunted, but the house certainly is, as I would be, until three years had passed and I was able to close the computer and say goodbye to the novel.

 

Jenn Ashworth’s first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light(Sceptre, 20011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is also published by Sceptre, as is her fourth and new release, Fell. She lives in Lancashire and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

You can find her at jennashworth.co.uk, or on Twitter @jennashworth

 

 

 

 

Fell – Jenn Ashworth

Fell is the new release by acclaimed literary novelist Jenn Ashworth (Sceptre 2016). On one hand it’s a dark tale of love and loss narrated in first person plural and omniscient third person by the ghosts of those long dead. On the other it’s an intense exploration of power and the struggle to attain and maintain it in interpersonal relationships. But, perhaps more than either of these, it’s an elegy for a life unnoticed.

The story centres on the lives of Netty and Jack, who become undone both physically and mentally, and their relationship with a young man who provides a particularly aggressive form of hope. Desire and desperation meet and lay bare the raw howl of humanity.

The story dances in time and perspective but every leaf-like dart and flutter is clearly signalled; we always know where we are and who we are. Throughout the story runs the thread of decay in a beautifully handled metaphor of house and home and the dark and brooding destructive power of nature. This darkness can be overwhelmed but never removed – unlike the Sycamores which dominate the skyline – and it exists in every mixed motive and flare of ego, every doubt. Every character in this novel is uneasy and the unease grows in pace with the disease until we reach a fraught crescendo.

There is life after death, both literally and figuratively, but there is a sense of great cost.

Jenn Ashworth does a superb job of evoking the spirit of the age in this novel. The descriptive passages ground you in a very real world, against which backdrop the preternatural sings. The relationship between Netty and Jack is entirely believable and the strengths and weaknesses of each character lead to a carefully nurtured sense of emotional investment. The story may not be entirely born of its landscape but it breathes it, lapping at the edges of our perception like the tides. Grange-over-Sands and Morecambe Bay show an expanse of horizon which provides a counterpoint to the increasingly insular nature of the Clifford home.

There are wonderful moments of dialect- plooks, moider and mollycot – when one of the characters is ‘gattered’. A moment of unguarded voice which raises the question of whether any public face is a true face. Is every voice a decision, an attempt to be accepted?

And the life unnoticed?

For some it will be the child, forever on the edges of the adult drama, putting aside her own voice out of duty and love. For others it will be the young man, at once observed and unobserved, damaged and damaging, desirous of anonymity and fame. Both, cursed with the same burden.

 

Jenn Ashworth’s first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award. On the publication of her second, Cold Light (Sceptre, 2011) she was featured on the BBC’s The Culture Show as one of the UK’s twelve best new writers. Her third novel The Friday Gospels (2013) is published by Sceptre. She lives in Lancashire and teaches Creative Writing at Lancaster University.

Jenn can be found at

http://www.jennashworth.co.uk

@jennashworth  on Twitter