Jenn Ashworth has had a short but prestigious literary career. Her debut novel, A KIND OF INTIMACY, won the Betty Trask Award, critical accolades and commercial success. COLD LIGHT, her dark, moody sophomore effort, seems destined to surpass the impact and promise of her first work.
This is the story of three young women in a small English town, one of whom is dead even as the story begins. Laura, who is the main character and narrator, and Chloe are teenage best friends, a pairing that becomes a circle when Chloe brings Emma into the group. It is Laura and Emma who reach adulthood; Chloe, at the tender age of 14, dies in a swimming incident with Mark, her much older boyfriend, in what is officially considered a suicide but is referred to thereafter as “the tragedy.” The prologue begins immediately after Chloe’s death, with Laura and Emma sequestered in their school as the police investigate the tragedy.
"Ashworth already has marked her places as a major literary talent. Comparisons with Tana French are inevitable, and, indeed, the moods that each evoke with their respective works are quite similar, even as they mine somewhat different ends of the same mountain."
The opening chapter begins some 10 years later in 2008. A ceremony marking the event is occurring, with a groundbreaking for a commemorative summerhouse near the pool where the drowning took place. The event itself is marred by a mysterious and grisly discovery, one that resounds and echoes throughout the book. However, Chloe’s death has permanently left its mark upon Laura, who is not right --- not by a long shot. Laura is an invisible, supporting herself by cleaning at a local mall and having all but given up on her life. It is not that her aspirations were all that lofty --- she remembers, with only a twinge of wistfulness, that she had once planned to work as a retail clerk --- but her appearance indicates that she is going through the motions. As bad as she is, however, Emma, the third wheel of the group, is much worse, living on a disability pension due to mental problems and volunteering at a local animal shelter.
Following the short-circuited memorial service, the two surviving women get together in Laura’s dingy apartment and discuss the past. Their revelations are uncovered slowly --- somewhat excruciatingly so --- as mysteries, including the one so gruesomely revealed that afternoon, are uncovered (literally) and brought to light, from the present to the past. Some are predictable, though much is not, but the impetus of the narrative is the manner in which a single event --- and the occurrences leading up to it --- cause irrevocable changes to take place in the lives of those who are left behind. Everything, every detail, is important here, including a pivotal figure who makes the skin crawl practically from the first sentence of their introduction. By the end, a line has been crossed and a change has been wrought. It is doubtful that any reader will be able to pass by a group of pensive teenage girls without thinking of Chloe, Emma and Laura and feeling a chill.
Ashworth already has marked her places as a major literary talent. Comparisons with Tana French are inevitable, and, indeed, the moods that each evoke with their respective works are quite similar, even as they mine somewhat different ends of the same mountain. For Ashworth, the tales of dead-end lives in small and dying towns should provide story grist for some time to come.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 16, 2012