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 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 presumed 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 resist and save. It is a fascinating and beautifully written book.

Promo Clown is Innocent


The problem with promoting your book

There is a cape of dread that lands on my shoulders whenever I think about the potential necessity of promoting my book. It’s not a very heavy cape. My guess is that it is made of some type of drip-dry, highly flammable fabric, no natural swing or swagger to it. The cut too is poor, and in combination with the nasty material, it sits like a lurid beacon on my shoulders, like a hi-vis uniform for a fast-food shop you wished you didn’t work for, where managers demand you smile with gleeful joy as you dish out company phrases into the bored or sneering faces of customers.

It is this mood of enforced cheerfulness that most fills me with dread when I try to picture what promoting my book might entail. In spite of having just successfully crowd-funded it on Unbound without having resorted to anything like the clowning, servile foolishness that I imagine is going to be my role for the next months and years, I dread having to sell it.

But it must be done. In the end, it must be done for financial reasons. If I want to give up the cleaning jobs that keep me going and write full time, it must be done. As I wrote in Let’s Hear It For The Hardcore I chose that work because it leaves me free to write. That doesn’t mean I want to stick with it. But it is the intrusion of finance that makes promotion so fraught. Selling, promotion, publicity, all these terms are tainted by the ruthless sharp edge of commerce. Perhaps it is the only real trickle-down we are left with from wealth-making financial concerns – making money deliberately is often an ugly and sometimes deceitful business.

This dilemma reaches into the making of work too. When we talk about authenticity, or dumbing down, or, whether, as I discussed in another post, we produce work for ourselves or an audience, we are getting close to this discomforting taint. Why are we doing it at all?

There is a popular notion of the artist, whether writer, painter or dancer, that they are doing something genuine. Something authentic. We have often imbued their output with a kind of mystery, as if we require our artists to be shamans, bringing down or up or out something reachable only by those willing to enter some kind of otherness, a holy trance state. I see an example of this in that way that some artists embrace (in claim at least) an abject life, a life of little comfort, ideally no success, and a wide safety margin between them and the taints of commerce. It is as if they feel they will continue to produce something pure. (This is problematic for me, but the discussion belongs in a different post.)

It is as though there is a scale that at one extreme has the harrowing desiccating logic of greedy capitalism and at the other has the ragged, wise fool. In the middle somewhere is a wide and cheery sea of co-operative crafters liking each other’s work on Instagram. Where to put myself on this line, in my dayglo cape?

I was told by someone with more experience than me to think about who my audience is. My answer was that I hope they are people who will like my writing, people who like thoughtful books. Unravellers. When I write, I don’t write for them. Nor do I write for myself. But I write for a reader. It would be absurd to write a book then tuck it into a folder never to be thought about again. Writing, like all of the arts, is an act of communication. I think my audience might be a person a bit like me. And one thing is sure, if I see a grinning maniac in a dayglo cape trying to trap me with their eyes, I evade at all costs. So then the answer must be that I sell my book as I write it, by laying open what interested me in bothering with it in the first place. It need not be too hysterical. Simply a matter of making it possible for lots of people to take a look while they make their own choice. I won’t even need to ask if they want free chips with that.