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. 


My manuscript is due back tomorrow. I am going to be a little late. It is difficult, when time divides into mosaic shards to pull a book into focus. I have decided that I need to re-write a chunk of pages. Not too many. A series of clarifications have jumbled up against one another and now the section seems scrambled rather than clearer.

How I would love to give up the other work that breaks up my time. Develop an expertise in sustained concentration. In New Author Top Trumps, that would be my losing score, every time. But at least, if it were only my own habits that caused the fragmentation, not the need to do a scuffling number of other jobs, I would have greater impetus to marshal my magpie mind. More of the black and white, a bit less of the ‘oooh, shiny!’

The image shows a quote from Twice the Speed of Dark. There is a large part of the book written in the voice of Caitlin, trying to unravel both the confusing darkness of death and the story that lead her there. I loved writing these sections, letting an image, a sense of material, almost a painterly sensibility take over, less closely focused on the plot and psyche of the characters. I have decided that I will make a separate, illustrated book of this section, called Gravity. After the scritchy scratch of untangling words, it feels particularly tempting just now, to drift into the broad strokes of black and light, of shape and texture. Back to the gestural, sweeping easiness of visual art. I wonder if all writers feel these different systems at play, if I just describe the kinship to visual art because it is something I understand.

I have mild tinnitus, coffee makes my skin go white noise, none of my glasses are just right and words seem very small and tangled. How liberating a fat brush dripping with paint would feel. And yet, I would still chose these days, the writing equivalent of that fat brush. If, that is, I had the time.

What a thrill it would be to have a body curved and compact as a swallow, a bird black all over, build with the same gigantic majesty as the darkness that holds the stars. To master these migrations and head for the burning heart of a star. Perhaps I would fly a little first.  

Suite Brexite


Unnatural lines stretch a manmade smile
awkward geometry
in a face that hangs like a crumpled sheet of beef

A smile engineered
to deflect and damn
the hate
that pools

rheumy spoil collecting in the folds




he thought
he thought
he thought
he thoughntleroy

I thought……

A whiff of talc
and knickerbocker nursey
an oink oink
soothes once more
untroubled brows


If you would like to support my novel ( published later this year by Unbound) and have your name listed inside as a backer, you can do so by following this link: Twice the Speed of Dark


handsome gjMy grandfather died of a broken heart six weeks after my grandmother. He had not expected to live without her, instead had meticulously planned for her comfort and security on what seemed to him to be the predictable certainty of his own death from a heart attack. But cancer doesn’t like predictions. Cancer, with its usual arrogant flare for such things, changed the story, rendered his meticulous, patriarchal, loving care unnecessary. A heart attack did kill him, but only after the death of my grandmother from bone cancer and the torture of six weeks of bereft and baffled mourning.

John Wood, we called him Grandjohn, was an imposing and impressive man. He came from a teetotal and dutifully obligated chapel background, as austere and spare as his name. He had no faith himself but was imbued with the characteristics of his family’s church, though he seemed to burst those narrow parameters at the seams. Six feet two inches, brown as a conker, bombastically sure of himself in a way that could be intimidating and even a little bullying. He was very handsome, dashing, though in his lifetime this was completely invisible to me. It took unearthed photos of his beautiful youth for me to see him as others would have.

He was politically and socially conservative but his personality was that of a daredevil, an adventurer and often, an absurdly, comically impatient lunatic. He drove his sports car onto the pavement to get around cars that were a little slow to pull away when the lights turned green, fury testing out his heart attack thesis once again. He snipped all the wires of the speakers round a hotel pool because the music irritated him to wasp rage. As a young man, he and his brother raced each other on motorbikes across the twin track parapets of a railway bridge. He was tremendous fun, gleefully leading us into some reckless endangerment, some motorised or wheeled or speeding adventure, always operating in secret away from our anxious and loving grandmother. We kids would get our roller skates and he would take us off in the car to find a ‘nice flat road’ when really, all the roads were flat. The car journey was a ruse so that, once safely round the corner away from grandmother’s eyes, he could tie a rope onto the bumper which we could then hang onto as he towed us, swinging wildly round the corners of the expensive, residential streets.

It is easy to see why he had predicted such an end for himself, correct medically even if the narrative didn’t work as he had expected. He smoked as a young man the way it seemed he did many things. He wouldn’t appreciate the Spinal Tap allusion but inside the conservative, blazer-wearing teetotaller, much of his personality was turned up to eleven. He inhaled his pipe smoke, he boiled his tea to a tar-like sheen, tanning himself from the inside as his sun-worship from March to October tanned him on the outside.

He once swapped a lawn mower for a tuba, and revelled in the blast of deep, music-less sound he could make with it. In the same way, he loved my bass guitar, the rumbling resonance gave him a profound and, to his mohican-sporting granddaughter, gratifying pleasure that, for once at that time, connected us in a way that was not fraught with judgemental disapproval on both sides.

It was deeply moving to see my grandfather in the new light cast by the loss of his beloved wife. This man, large, colourful, imposing, intimidating, suddenly showed a frailty that seemed almost miraculous. Not because we needed to see it or welcomed it, but because his certainty about everything had given us absolute certainly about him. Anything outside of those cartoon clear lines of expectation had a fragile, magical quality. I felt a kind of awe in the face of his inability to live with his loss. He lost weight, he cried about a dog that put its head on his knee in mute empathy. He still complained about the noise when he came to stay with us, still told everyone what the best way to do a thing was and you’d be a bloody fool to consider other options, but there was something new and tender that had not been part of our connection to him. Perhaps it had all been reserved for beautiful Daphne, his true love, his reason for living, and with her gone, he had to share it unexpectedly, perhaps undesirably for him, with us.

I never had any doubt that he loved us all very deeply. It was a love that was built on expectation. He expected us to do well in life, to work hard as he always had, to achieve what he presumed for himself and for us, our merit in the eyes of the world. An old-fashioned love predicated on the achievement of comfort and safety. Dreams were to be let off in searing firework flashes around the edges of the serious business of life; in the roar of a motorbike engine and the atonal and offensively loud blast of a tuba kept in the bedroom wardrobe.

After he died, I spent a surreal and magical few days in my grandparent’s house with my mum, my aunt and my sister. One of the pictures that stayed with me, a comfort many times and a profound reminder of the precious gift of connection was an open atlas. He had a conservatory, called tellingly, the sun room. Even when it was cold, if the sun shone in a clear sky he would open one of the doors so he could lie in the sun, tracking its progress, moving round from facet to facet of the hexagonal room. In that room, next to the padded sun bed was a table and chairs and on the table was an atlas open to the page that showed Australia. There was a blue airmail letter from my brother, travelling around Australia for a year. He had described the recent leg of his journey and my grandfather had looked it up in the atlas. It must be what he was doing shortly before he had the heart attack. It gave me great comfort, seeing these papers that connected them. Even with the moment long gone, those connections remain, making an invisible ravelling that perhaps is the real structure of our lives.

Women Who Shock – response

This IS a love song

Don’t take it personal
I choose my own fate
I follow love
I follow hate

The Slits, Adventures Close To Home

I recently read an essay by Sophie Hopesmith, author of forthcoming novel Another Justified Sinner. She wrote about the way that women writers and musicians provided a context and gave courage to counteract the ‘be nice, be quiet’ mode of girlhood that so many of us were and often still are expected to adopt. It struck a chord with me – a thrashy, joyful and rancorous chord.

coach trip 3
The Star coach trip to Brighton, me in the white vest behind the victory salute.

As with Sophie, many of the women who acted as my signposts were musicians from the punk and post-punk era. But not just the musicians. The bold and beautiful girls on the streets of Reading, with their wild hair and wild style that I admired, took to and adopted as soon as I was old enough. (Shout out, Star Girls!)

Before the genuine liberation of becoming a punk (as naive as that sounds, there is in all teenagers a kind of becoming, youth cultures can provide the context) I was baffled. I didn’t understand girl-world. There was a dull pink passivity, a sense that girls waited to be invited. Girls sat on the edge, watched boys play pool, they waited to be noticed. It was such a bloody boring offer. The song that says everything about this to me is Typical Girls by the Slits, one of the best bands that ever existed, and a band that is finally getting the recognition for their musical genius that they deserve.

Don’t create, don’t rebel
Have intuition
Can’t decide

The Slits, Typical Girls

There was a myth-making about punk, a pretence that it was all raw, new, wildly creative. But though the street fashion was clearly inventive, much of the music was standard rock and roll. Even the delivery had been coined in America by bands like MC5 and the Stooges. But there was, amongst the snarling iteration of bog-standard rockology, beautiful bits of invention. For me, top of this pile is the album Cut by the Slits.


I thought at the time that what I described in the above paragraph as a liberation was a simple cauterisation. I had seen what was wrong and simply stepped away from it. I played in bands, watched football, was for a while a pretty blinding pool player. I shouted, got drunk, scared people sometimes. I was in control of my story, things happened and I jumped into them without needing permission or approval. And this is all true, and all precious. But with age has come a more nuanced view.

Many men I knew from then were and still are excellent feminists but most, however alternative in their taste and style were no different to the mainstream in the way they perceived women. Girls were great for, you know, tits and stuff but the important act of music making, as in playing thirty year old blues riffs fast and loud with your legs apart, that was a man’s job. So entrenched was this view that The Slits were often presumed to have a maverick male genius stashed behind the scenes somewhere, working the glorious girl puppets. For a supposedly unconventional group, punks and post-punks were often remarkably dad-like patriarchs in their views.

The presumption of male superiority and perhaps more cripplingly of female inferiority created the necessity for a kind of defiance for all of us. It wasn’t a matter of being the girls we were, but of defying the girls we were supposed to be. For example, and somewhat tragically I stopped wanting, for a long time, to be sexy.  This was because there was a narrative, there still is, that I was responsible for any attention I got whilst in public. If my hips swung as I walked, what could I expect but that a man in a car would leer and shout? If I wore sexy clothes to please myself or attract a specific man, how could I complain that any random man paid me attention of a boorish or threatening or demeaning nature? I am quite tomboyish, so the consequent periods of cropped hair, no makeup and battered jeans was not a hardship, but nor was it entirely a free choice.

The joy of the punk era was that there was a flock of wild creatures whose exteriors expressed defiance, even when their insecurities and uncertainties were held tenderly inside. It was possible to be defiantly, anything. Perhaps one day we will reach an age when women (and of course, men and boys and others) will be able to emerge as themselves, without the need for that self to be shaped as if against anything. How simple and wise a world that would be.

I look now at my daughters in their early twenties and teens and I see that in many ways, they are making exactly the same sets of choices as I did. Times have improved to the extent that no one doubts that is possible for non-specific women to achieve high office, great reward, impressive power. But no one can seriously believe that we have progressed so far that there won’t be times in my daughter’s lives when their gender, even in supposedly liberated Europe, won’t count against them in some way. It has been after all, proved countless times that blind auditions and interviews still hire more women than those in which gender is known. Some things have perhaps got worse – now even the ‘feminists’ are supposed, along with their carefully signalled powerfulness, to look sexily ready for a bit of male-gaze fantasy fulfilment.

But happily for this immature and frustrating world, I see in my daughters the same beautiful defiance that I used to see in my friends. It takes courage. Not all these girls are or were confident. It is hard for young girls to be confident, confidence is not handed to them as a birthright. But wonderfully, they do it any way. Their courage comes easily, confidence has to be hard won. Everywhere there are women and girls holding out for more than passive, pleasing softness. It is infuriating that it is still necessary for them to defy, for them to invest their own courage to reshape the world whether the world wants it or not. But believe me, we are lucky that they do.

All of them have my admiration and gratitude.

Why Unbound? Why crowdfunding?

Observations from people who’ve been there

Funding my book with Unbound has been a fascinating process. There have been unexpected benefits that go beyond the buzz of having my book published.

Unbound came into being as a response to changes in the publishing industry. Good books were not getting published because their commercial success couldn’t be guaranteed. There has been a steady drift toward projects with TV or celebrity tie-ins, so whilst the business of books in general may have been in unexpectedly great shape, areas such as literary fiction have been struggling. Thus the clever people at Unbound came up with a way of addressing this. As well as a way of securing publication for a wide array of books that might not make it in the more commercial sector, it offers a fantastic connection between writer and audience.

Is it for you? Are you about to launch your own crowdfunded book, with Unbound or any other platform? Here, with a little help from my Unbound friends, are some tips and observations on crowdfunding. (Most of them work for promoting a book too.)

Stevyn Colgan, author of A Murder To Die For

1)THE AUDIENCE IS ELUSIVE. It was very much harder than I had anticipated to reach the people that I didn’t already know.

2) TOUGH –  YOU MUST HUNT THEM DOWN. You will need strangers to buy your book so start looking for them early. The audience has no need of your words, there are millions of other words already out there that they could gorge on for all eternity. But they will pledge because you make yourself of interest to them, because you let them know you are there. Initially this will probably be because they love you or care about you. Very few will pledge because they happened to read your synopsis and think you are a genius. But you have to find ways to reach them any way.

Damon Wakes, author of Ten Little Astronauts

3) FINDING YOUR VOICE IS DIFFICULT BUT YOU ONLY HAVE TO DO IT ONCE.  I don’t mean your writer’s voice, that bit is dealt with already. I mean your professional author voice. That is, if you want to get your book funded and subsequently aim to give up or cut back on the work you are doing to pay your way whilst you write.

Social media guilt starts to drag around behind you like a damp, mildewed cape hanging limp and heavy from your shoulders. Smart people who are good at selling books tell you to do it, do it hard, do it more. Every day, engage, build connections. It takes up a helluva lot of mindspace to even think of how that might work. But eventually you seem to find a kind of honest approach, one that doesn’t feel like a fake or an uncomfortable hard sell. Then it can be quite fun.

Apart from odd moments when you suspect all your friends hate you and wish your computer would break.

4) IT HELPS ENORMOUSLY that Unbound have selected the manuscript. It shouldn’t matter, the selection does not of course, suddenly make it a better book than if I had self-published, but it gives people confidence in it.

Helen M Taylor, author of The Backstreets of Purgatory

5) MAKE NEW FRIENDS. I have come into a fabulous, not exactly secret, but almost, back-stage community. A number of other Unbound writers get together on a regular basis via the medium of Facebook to share tips, moan, high-five, amuse each other and become friends. I’ve even met some of them and hope to do so again. It is wonderful support. A kind of unofficial, ad-hoc scaffold built from the finest materials. There are many different writers, a magically wide array of books (some of which I have made pledges for myself) all come together into a helpful and supportive community. A great resource. It is sometimes the only place you can go to off-load anxiety or boredom or disappointment with progress. You can’t actually tell a friend who has been generous enough to back your project that you are fed up with how slowly it seems to be moving without it sounding like a barely-disguised wheedle.

It has been so valuable and mood-lifting, informative and smart. It is great to know that when someone feels hollow or disappointed by small rewards gained from huge effort, a group of cheery and funny people who totally get the feeling will gather round (temporarily taking a break from penning the next masterpiece/suspiciously ready to engage in an easy online-distraction) to tell them how well they are doing and that they shouldn’t give up.

Ian Skewis, author of A Murder Of Crows

6) LOVE YOUR OLD FRIENDS. Most wonderful of all is how generous friends, colleagues and family are. I have had so much support. Way more than I expected. Which is incredibly lucky, because see 1). People have been amazingly generous. Like other authors,  I have found that it has been by far the bulk of my backing. None of them had to pledge, there is no obligation. It is generosity that makes people pledge, a generous desire to help, a generous desire to fund the arts, a generous desire to make something happen. It is humbling and up-lifting. And, unexpectedly, it made this process, though it has sometimes been difficult, scary and definitely hard work, one that is ultimately very rewarding.

Of course I will never know if my book would have eventually been published by a conventional publisher, but probably not. So I am deeply, immensely grateful to Unbound for making it possible. The opportunity to invest in books that may not make a great deal of money is precious for all of us. And in all my dealings the people at Unbound have been unfailingly kind, helpful and engaged.

It feels great that so many people have invested in my book, even the ones who intended to pledge but never got round to it. The openness of the process has made them aware of what I am doing and interested enough to talk to me about it and that is an investment.

James Ellis, author of The Wrong Story

Crowdfunding, asking for help or support, finding people to invest in your work is daunting, it can be very hard work. But it is also uplifting and exciting, and possibly the only option if you don’t want to go it alone. I am very happy with the story so far.

My book Twice the Speed of Dark will be coming out on Unbound later this year.

The flicker of lights

Shades 1 aperture

Short story

As outlined in this post Twice the Speed of Dark began as a project in which I wrote portraits to imagine what the real lives might be of the people who died in terror attacks overseas, whose stories were presumed to be uninteresting to us, or irrelevant. I wanted to engage with the complexities and tender beauties of ordinary lives that had been suddenly and brutally ended, then ignored. The aim was to look at the life of that person, not their death, so as to attempt an understanding of what had been ended. (In Twice the Speed of Dark, Anna writes the portraits, some of which can be found in the book. You can still make a pledge for Twice the Speed of Dark, and get your name in the back as a thank you for being a supporter, if you would like to.)

I decided yesterday that I would revisit the portraits I wrote during that project and write short/very short stories to expand on the few sentences I had written as an outline. This story is about the first portrait I wrote.

#1. Aperture

She sighs, stretches backward, gratified by the small, responsive click in her back. She pulls back her elbows hoping to coax another snap from her tired spine. Bending forward once more to complete the job, she digs around the roots of the ungainly plant with a trowel. Once the soil is loosened she grasps the thickened stem, coaxing gently so as to ease out the whole root system in one. A gentle, insistent tug, a come with me. Soon the plant is out of the ground, almost whole, its growth flayed out, mirrored at each end of the brown thickening of the stem. It lies on the ground. A pair of lungs on a tilted axis, one to breath air, one water.

Standing back, she looks at the flower bed, at the wall behind, painted some years ago a powder blue, turned chalky under steady sun. Where the plant had ranged against the wall is a patch of pale yellow, the colour before.

Her brother had painted the walls in the back yard for her, at a time when she had become fragile. Her youngest son a tiny soul in limbo, unsure of his way in the world as she withdrew, crushed under the confusion of post-natal depression. Her husband, always a busy man, had called in a roster of family, there to love his son until she found her way back, there to love his wife until she remembered that she loved them too. The garden, made cheerful, was part of their medicine.

Since those days she has sat out in the garden, a habit formed in bleak times but now imbued with a measure of restorative peace. She sits on a metal stool, gazing at the patch of yellow that sinks like a feeble sun into the earth, into the blue of the wall.

It marks a greater absence. A few days after painting the yard her brother had come by to take the three children out to the park, left his sister sitting quietly in the sun in the back yard. On his return they had argued, an old family wound. The argument was well worn, a scar, no longer an injury. But memories of pain had prompted their fight. She had told him to leave. Three days later he had drowned whilst fishing at dusk in a small boat that gently washed back onto the dark shore without him.

Instead of replacing the plant with a new flowering shrub, she leaves the empty space. The boundary between yellow and blue, the mark of absence revealed the presence of a brother she had loved deeply and mourned properly only years after his death. She had not noticed him in the walls, in the completion of a job well done. But in this aperture, this incomplete detail, she finds the hand of the worker, she finds her brother. She tamps down the soil.