“I’m not to everybody’s taste. A friend of mine, Boris, told me I was a minority interest, like collecting Stilton jars or learning to fold paper birds.”—Annie Fairhurst
Annie Fairhurst, the narrator of this clever, black-humored character study, hooks the reader from the opening scene, which opens with Annie sending a van containing all her possessions to a new address, after which she strips off all her clothes and viciously attacks the “bloody sofa” which she has left behind. It is the sofa on which her husband proposed to her more than a decade ago, when she was seventeen and he, thirty-two: “I filled the room: as large and white as the removal van…My thighs wobbled, dimpled with fat and puckered with stretch marks, and I saw myself kick again….[and] at the sound of his voice [in my head] I kicked it again…My little episode went on some time; could have gone on longer but I stubbed my toe and had to stop, gasping, eyes watering, laughing in spite of the pain.” Then she takes the tags off a completely new wardrobe and gets dressed: “I didn’t want to smell like this house, or even like the fabric conditioner Will and I used. Had used…I wanted to leave all reminders of my old life behind me.”
When she arrives at her new house, she envisions herself as Jackie Kennedy, “getting out of an aeroplane. She’s tiptoeing down the steps her hair like sculpted soap, waving gently with white-gloved hands to the people waiting for her and looking smiley and sophisticated…” Clearly this main character, who has a problem with anger and with her perception of herself, has a lot to learn, but the reader quickly discovers that she plans to work on her issues, reminding herself of “important” advice from virtually every self-help book ever written. She is disappointed, however, that the new neighbors have not provided her with some sort of welcome.
Author Jenn Ashworth takes the concept of irony to new heights in this psychological novel which rivals Patrick McCabe’s The Butcher Boy in its intensity, and it is in her irony that this novel achieves something that McCabe’s novel does not—it is pathetically funny at the same time that it is terrifyingly slow in its revelations of Annie’s past life. In the first six pages, Neil, Annie’s new next door neighbor, asks her if “the family,” especially her little girl, have arrived yet. Annie asserts that he must be confused–that it is only her and her cat, no husband, no daughter. Though it is tempting to feel sorry for her, Annie’s continuing comments reveal that she did, in fact, tell the realtor that she had a husband and daughter, that this is indeed the truth, and that something has happened to both of them. Suspicions become suspense as the novel unfolds.
Every remark and every action from this point on capitalizes on the reader’s understanding of real life as the author shows it being played out in conversations among the neighbors and other residents of the community, while Annie twists and manipulates what she sees and hears so that her reality will be what she wants it to be. Her obsession with the unfortunate Neil, who is happily living with Lucy, a young woman whom Annie abhors, leads her into many unneighborly acts—putting garbage and cat droppings through the mail slot for Neil’s lover Lucy to discover, eavesdropping on conversations, peering through windows, and misreading Neil’s lack of interest in her as his clever way of hiding his love for her from his live-in girlfriend. She eventually comes to the attention of the association’s Neighborhood Watch.
All the conversations between Annie and everyone else are classics of dramatic irony. The reader recognizes bits of the truth while the real story of Annie and her past are withheld for most of the book, thereby sustaining suspense while drawing the reader into Annie’s twisted world. Though her actions from the beginning are one step beyond what is “normal,” and the reader knows this, the cumulative picture of Annie’s mind as the plot develops further becomes positively terrifying—and pathetic. Her childhood, as it unfolds, does elicit sympathy for her, but at the same time, Annie is dropping hints about what will unfold in the future, increasing the ironies, since the reader does not want to be tricked into believing in someone as devious (and deviant) as Annie. When the author finally begins to reveal details of Annie’s past which one must accept as true, the reader still cannot help wondering how the author will ever reconcile the information gleaned from several scenes which seem to conflict with one another. The conclusion is sly – brilliant, even – with the full impact coming very gradually.
As can be seen from the quotations here, Ashworth’s eye for the character-revealing detail is unerring, as is her control of Annie’s “voice.” A couple of obvious examples of foreshadowing are a bit clumsy, but overall, the author’s control of her details and her pacing are meticulous. Ashworth manages to depict a main character with a perverted sense of self and gross ignorance of the conventions of social intercourse while, at the same time satirizing the very suburban society which Annie wishes to be part of—a major achievement pulled off with panache and darkly humorous flair. This is the kind of escape reading one dreams of.
Notes: The author’s photo appears on http://uk.linkedin.com
The suburban Fleetwood residential community to which Annie moves may have resembled this Fleetwood community: www.findaproperty.com, with attached houses, and gardens behind each unit.