Jenn Ashworth: Cold Light (2011) Crime and Social Realism

An unsettling, darkly humorous tale of teenage girls in a predatory adult world, and a cocktail of lies, jealousy and unworldliness that leads to tragedy.

I have been looking forward to Jenn Ashworth’s new novel since I read A Kind of Intimacy at the beginning of the year (here’s the review). I had a bit of a problem not comparing the two books but once I let go of that I really liked this novel, it’s disturbing and chilling and you only find out at the very end what really happened.

Cold Light is a very appropriate title for this novel, although – as will be explained towards the end – it refers to bioluminescence.  It is a cold world in which today’s girls move and a predatory one. But is this really all that new? There is a lot that reminded me of my own coming of age. Not for anything in the world would I want to be 14 again. The competitions, the jealousy, the insecurity and the constant fighting off of boys or hoping to be noticed by them – depending on where on the good-looking scale you were positioned – was by far too upsetting. It’s all very horrible and can damage you for life. But there are other things young girls have to cope with nowadays that were not even thinkable 10-20 years ago. And today’s Britain (I’m just finishing Kat Banyard’s book The Equality Illusion and it echoes Cold Light) seems to be even worse than many other places.

Chloe is dead. Chloe will be 14 forever, 14, pretty and romantic. Since her presumed suicide 10 years ago she has become something like a cult figure. A symbol for young love and innocence. Now, ten years later, her former best friend Laura sits in front of her TV in a shabby little apartment and watches the groundbreaking ceremony for her memorial. The ceremony comes to an abrupt and macabre end when human bones are found in the damp soil. Laura nows whose bones they are and from this very first scene in the novel we know that some things must have gone seriously wrong ten years ago and we also know that there is a lot to be found out about Chloe, her ex-boyfriend who died with her and everyone else who was involved.

Laura will be watching TV all night, later joined by Emma with whom she is still in contact. They will be smoking and drinking until the early morning. Through flash backs and parts of their discussion the truth is slowly revealed. It’s the story of three friends who are jealous of one another, an older boyfriend who seems weird, a town in a state of alarm as a flasher who is getting more and more violent is chasing young girls. The three girls are only 14 yet they smoke, drink and have sex. We also hear a lot about innocent Chloe, how she exploited the obsessive best friend feelings of the others, how narcissistic and bullying she was, her delinquency and how she always got away with everything just because she was so pretty. Reading the story from Laura’s point of view we discover a lot about her family, the sadness of her childhood, about her father who seems to suffer from some kind of mental illness, her controlling mother and her obsession with Chloe that turns her into a stalker.

It’s an excellent book, disturbing and accurate and reminded me a great deal of the movie Fish Tank. I also thought of Harry Brown. Both movies paint a bleak picture of British youth. The first one also focusing on young girls being as well prey, victims and perpetrators.

Thanks again to Hodder and Stoughton who send me a review copy.