by Jenn Ashworth
Review: Grace Read
Cold Light is about how to be. How to be a daughter; how to be a friend; how to be a survivor. It is about how to be honest, how to be safe and how to be grown-up. But Cold Light doesn’t give us the answers. It just repeatedly, implicitly, asks the question, ‘how?’
Cold Light is a beautifully enticing novel; it brings joy and horror in equal measure. Laura (Lola for short), Ashworth’s protagonist, is fascinating; her voice is strong and packed with all the intense emotion, wisdom and the bittersweet humour of a disillusioned 14 - 24 year old girl. Lola recounts her teenage years from her flat one sleepless night. She tells us about her intense and uneasy relationships with her parents, her friends and herself.
Lola’s voice is nostalgic and poignant. She remembers exceptional detail and is wise beyond her years. She is a mixture of childlike imagination, teenage anxiety and adult grief. Ashworth has created a remarkable narrative voice.
Ashworth has structured Cold Light in such a way that a reader cannot help but be gripped with suspense and intrigue. She controls what the reader knows, and when they know it, which creates gradual and tantalising revelation. However, if I were inclined to predict endings to stories (which I’m not), I may have been able to predict the outcome of Cold Light, but even if I had, the joy of reading Ashworth’s narrative would not have been lessened.
Cold Light has a few strong themes running through it, one of which being ‘desperation’. Lola is essentially alone in the world, with a distant mother and a mentally ill father; ‘There is nothing and nobody to hold onto’. She is desperate for friendship, and with Chloe she ‘had felt so loved’ but this love is fundamentally undermined by the sordid reality of their relationship.
Many of the characters are desperate to be noticed. Chloe thrives on attention (‘If we all…pretended like Chloe did not exist, she’d probably die’.) Terry, the local newsreader is desperate to cling to fame (albeit local), and Donald, Lola’s father, is desperate to be recognised for his research into bioluminescence.
There is also a desperation to turn back time, wishing ‘things would go back to they way they had been in the summer’, but also the heartbreaking knowledge that ‘there wasn’t a way to fix this’. It’s in this disparity that Lola lives as a teenager and as an adult.
Another strong theme is the search for truth and the formation of memories. Ashworth explores the way in which collective false memories are formed and fed, and how they come to protect her characters from the devastating, tragic reality. ‘Doing violence to the way things really are in order to make the story work can be addictive…it makes you feel safe’. There is also a yearning for honesty and transparency throughout the novel, as Lola laments, ‘I’m not certain what is the truth’.
Lola’s voice conveys a powerful sense of loss that permeates every area of life, and as a result, it permeates the narrative. This heightens the solemn beauty of the narrative. Alongside this are moments of observational humour that raise a smile and go so far as to bring slight amusement.
There are a couple of stunning scenes, made so by their attention to detail and observational brilliance. One of these is the New Year’s Eve celebration that Lola has to endure with her parents. There were ‘too many Ritz crackers’ and her mum’s plan was for a ‘ “quiet, civilised and nice evening” ’. The gentle revelation of the dysfunctional, and yet somehow normal, relationship between all three family members is touching and seems incredibly real. It is definitely one of the best passages in the book.
There is a danger that this review could make Cold Light seem like a grim read, but as much as the content is dark and melancholy, it is also beautifully observed and masterfully written. Ashworth’s descriptive skills are immense and well exhibited here.