While reading Jenn Ashworth's remarkable novel I often found myself thinking about another fictional haunted house ...

"Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."

From The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson

The northern seaside boarding house described at the very heart of Fell has also been abandoned, though its walls and floors are far from firm, many sloping and cracked with subsidence caused by the monstrous sycamore trees that have grown beside its doors for years: the trees which once gave the house its name, which are now are under threat of being felled, unless the building crumbles first.

I also heard echoes in the themes from Dennis Potter's dramatisation, Brimstone and Treacle - the story in which a family find their home and lives to be influenced by a mysterious and charismatic young man who may, or may not, possesses the power of healing by bodily contact.

In Brimstone and Treacle that power stems from an obvious sexual attack. In Fell, this is much more subtly done - sometimes darkly sinister, and sometimes truly comical while combining everyday events along with the downright weird, amid which the intriguing young 'healer', Timothy Richards (introduced in a disturbing scene at the local town lido one summer's day) is first seen to commit a violent act which then leads to a minor miracle. 

Jack Clifford - who Tim had seemed to attack - then goes home to find that he's been 'cured' of the poor vision that's blighted his life for years. In fact, so convinced does Jack become of Timothy's powers to heal the flesh, he invites the young man to come and live for free with himself and with Netty, his wife, who is suffering from cancer.

Ashworth does not spare the reader when describing the brutal treatments that Netty endures at the hospital - with the graphic descriptions of Tim's home cures also being graphically described, at some points with a supernatural twist as horrific for us to visualise as scenes in a gruesome horror film.

And, in the midst of all of this is the Cliffords' only daughter, Annette - the small child who mutely wanders about the house and garden as her living parents endure their fates; as her own activities echo theirs...

"She has a good collection of green leaves. They are the shape of eyes and she hold two over her own eyes to see if they fit. They do. She stumbles over the grass, seeing nothing. What does she look like? What she should do is get a little stick and poke holes in the leaves so she can hold them over her eyes and still see through them. She could look at herself in the hall mirror. But she's to stay out of the way in the garden and anyway she's supposed to be getting the tea party ready because what will the guests think if they arrive in their best clothes and there's nothing ready for them? It would be completely mortifying. She picks a few more leaves. There are rules about this game. It's all right to pull leaves off the hedge but not to pick flowers or to mess about with the brassicas or to eat any berries or to make a mess. She stops, takes her green handfuls towards the house, and lays them out in a circle on the front step. She admires it. She likes sitting between the trees like this. Likes hearing the whispering they make when the wind blows through their branches. Then she gets daisy petals (daisies aren't flowers, they don't count, so it's okay to pick them) and puts them on top, and then little bits of crumbly mud or twigs. There a song to sing about getting the party ready, a private song she makes new words up for every single time, but mainly the song is like the one she hears being sung when the big kids play Boatman in the street.

Boatman, Boatman, can I pass?
You can't pass!
Boatman, Boatman, can I pass?
If you're wearing yellow, you can pass!

The grown Annette returns again to find the garden overgrown, the house left empty and decayed; though in truth it is far from empty, with the ghosts of her parents being there to observe their daughter's every move, to love her and hope for her happiness from their airy state 'beyond the veil'.

And here, Jenn Ashworth really shows the extent of her literary talent, with the individual characters of Jack and Netty when alive being fused in the 'we' of today, when they 'wake' (at first in a state of confusion) and sense Annette back in the house - from then slipping backwards and forwards in time, and also in their narrative styles, as the novel reveals its mysteries.

As the 'we' burrow up through the floorboards, or sit holding hands, clinging onto the roof tiles, I found it immensely touching to see links to the myth of Baucis and Philemon, in which an elderly couple who once showed hospitality to the gods have their house preserved as a temple, and in death their spirits entwined as one within the branches and leaves of trees.

It's a long time since I've read a book and felt such a genuine sense of excitement - not only of anticipation in wondering what the plot will bring, but also because of the knowledge that here is something quite unique despite the allusions on which it draws; that here is a writer of great skill, whose work is deserving of great acclaim.

1 comment:

thewhitespike said...

That sounds fantastic Essie. I don't normally read that kind of book but, your description of her writing has made me think of giving it a go. I didn't fancy The Loney but, I'm glad I listened to you then. Great review.