Fell by Jenn Ashworth – review

Published by Sceptre
I was prompted to read Fell by a book group on Twitter. I will write more about the group, and the theme of New Folk Lit that was its starting point in another post, including contributions from author Jenn, who was kind enough to make herself available for a Twitter Q and A, but first I wanted to write a review of Fell.

Fell is quiet and compelling. Atmospheric. I want to say damp if it weren’t for that having negative or unpleasant connotations. The word is a testament to the real presence of the atmosphere that the book creates. It seeps in and settles on you, with a gentle persistence. The themes are absorbed into your consciousness and around and through each other – predominantly for me, the idea of a kind of shifting hinderance that is halfway between invasion and restraint. 

“The illness is itself a creeping illness and its main symptom has been to make Mum’s skin stop working. Everything that’s belongs inside: blood and sick and wee and number two and spit and some strange green-yellow stuff Mum leaves on the bed and on the back of her nightdress sometimes, is coming out through her skin to the world outside where it should not be.”

Netty and Jack are trapped by Netty’s illness. The house they leave to their daughter Annette is fatally undermined by the roots of the sycamore trees that give the crumbling house its name. The bay, the sands and mudflats seem to open up to wide skies and freedom but they are dangerous with absences, sink holes and drowning spots. After death, Netty and Jack themselves leach through the barrier between life and death and hover, like smoke on a still night, in the heavy air, observing their grown daughter with impotent, anguished love. Their unworldly voice, an amorphous ‘we’ is handled beautifully by the writer, eerie but somehow earthy and believable. 

“It’s still strange to see ourselves like this. Unpleasant to have this time returned to us. It’s not what we would have wished for, if anyone had asked. With Annette gone, we’d rather sleep now – go back to the blankness of the no-time before she arrived, when we were aware of nothing.”

Charismatic chancer Tim has a gift that makes him the unwilling bridge between states of being but this is a skill that is uncertain in his hands as though to emphasise that otherness intrudes of its own volition. All the characters are in some way held by something, restrained by forces that intrude to shape and change their lives. This untrustworthiness is reflected in the landscape, a beach that becomes a salt marsh, a river that re-works, as if on a whim, the land. 

“It was a hazy day, and all Eve saw was the misty, no-colour Sky, the grey shapes of the fells and the dark shadows of the people walking with her reflected in the wet sand. They were barefooted and muddy-legged, all of them, and spread out in an uneven, straggling phalanx so as not to churn up the ground and turn it into quicksand. But it was there – he showed it to them, standing on the wobbling skin of the earth, until the dun-coloured surface began to bend and buckle, so saturated with water it showed signs of cracking wide open, falling into crumbling fissures that would set and ooze without warning.”

Fell describes the way that we are agents in the landscape but we are subject to it. The deft handling makes a case for life lived in layers, layers that might unwittingly invade or restrain each other, or, against the laws of being, over-lap and blend. All of it is done quietly, with perhaps a hint of menace at the ultimate unpredictability of states that we would be foolish to take as absolutes; being, time and place. It is love that remains constant, a kind of care taking, a web that is subtle and agile enough to resists and save. It is a fascinating and beautifully written book.