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.

28 thoughts on “Jenn Ashworth: Cold Light (2011) Crime and Social Realism

  1. I want to admit, first off, that I didn’t read your entire review because I want to read this book with ‘virgin’ eyes as much as possible! lol But I skimmed the body of your review & read the first and last paragraph. To say i’m looking forward to reading Cold Light doesn’t quite describe my feelings but it’ll do. I’m intrigued about female friendships among young girls, how they view friendships, each other & themselves as well as how they are treated by society. I also admit to a bias for literature with British theme! And I enjoy mysteries and thrillers. I will be back to read your review more completely when I’ve read Cold Light! I’m happy you enjoyed this book!

    • I would say A Kind of Intimacy but it is very hard to compare them as they are very different. I have hardly ever read two books as different as that from the same author. On the other hand I was more impressed with A Kind of Intimacy while reading it but this one lingers longer.

  2. I am so looking forward to reading this. From what I’ve heard, it seems that Jenn Ashworth is particularly good at catching the spirit of the contemporary age and shining a relentless light on its dangers and threats. I also agree with you that I wouldn’t want to go back to being 14 again, either! What a dreadful time that was.

    • I think she did this really well, it is bleak but not overdone. It was dreadful, wasn’t it, that age? That what fascinated me, even though it pictures the life of girls today is the fact that it also has a timeless quality.

  3. I’ll join the club of those who found fourteen a miserable age. This sounds just like the kind of mystery I like – full of psychological nuance.

    I actually read The Equality Illusion recently as well! I can’t wait to hear what you think (and I need to review it myself.)

    • 14 was really bad! I’ll be interested in what you thought of Banyard’s book. It didn’t have a chance to read Cordelia Fine yet but will do so. I’m interested to see how they compare but I guess they are very different. It was almost eerie how some of what Banyard wrote echoed this book.

    • I did look it up when you first mentioned it. It is labelled YA. This isn’t but there may be a similarity in the theme.
      I think you would probably like both but if Boy Heaven is so similar the A Kind of Intimacy is a better starting point.

      • I have read the French translation Rêve de garçon. It’s published by Gallimard, in Folio and it’s not in the children/teenage section of bookstores.
        I can’t see why it’s labelled YA. Is it so for every book with teenagers ? Le Grand Meaulnes is YA too then?

        • No not at all, that’s why I was suprised when I looked it up. I know you don’t naturally read YA. Cold Light doens’t have the label but Boy Heaven does. I have stopped to pay attention. I also like children’s books, so why not YA. Meg Rosoff whose book What I Was I reviewed and where we first had this discussion left a comment on the post and it is interesting what she says.

  4. I can’t wait to read this. I loved her first book and will see what I can do about getting a copy of this (maybe too early to try and get it from ILL at my library). Strangely the publisher offered me this book in an ad/email and when I replied they never got back to me–maybe they didn’t want to send to the US? Ah well, I’ll get a copy eventually! I wouldn’t want to be that age ever again, too. My niece is 12 and I see what she has to look forward to!

    • They never replied to me either and then suddenly it was in the post. It took them almost a month after I wrote I’d like to read it to send them. Who knows?
      I’m interested to see how you will like it. It is very bleak. A Kinf of Intimacy made me laugh, this one didn’t. Poor niece, although it isn’t bad for everyone. I found it really hard to be 14-…. and quite a few years later. I think it would be hard to have a daughter that age.

  5. I think so, too. My niece is a nice girl and smart, but she’s starting to be difficult about things occasionally. Kids have always been able to be nasty to each other, but with all the technology available–it almost seems worse for them!

    • Yes but also what they face from the grown-ups. Girls really are prey. The society encourages that in a way. I saw an article today about sexy clothing for girls who are only 9 years old. Why should a 9 year old look sexy? This shocked me as well in the book, the depiction of how precocious girls are nowadays.

      • They sell throngs and shoes with heels for little girls. What kind of parents buy such clothes for their daughters?
        It’s so dangerous and it make them grow up with the idea they have to be sexy. Body before mind. Seduction before intelligence. Really sad.
        Don’t you think fashion has been rather “pouffe” these last years?

        • Yes, that’s what Banyard states in her book too but she also says.
          I do not know how you can buy these things for your children and do understand why my mother was shocked when I bought high heels (behind her back) at age 10.
          Body before mind is dangerous but it’s not getting better and what also shocked me when I read Banyard’s book – although I knew it subconsciously – that porn and everything related to porn becomes more and more mainstream. And women support this stuff…
          “Im a liberated woman, I do some lap dancing…” Yes, right… Of course you are. I hope to continue this dicussion one I post on Banyard next week.

  6. sounds like a depressing book. I have read (half of it) Almost Transparant Blue by Ryu Murakami, too much drug and sex really put me off. Is this book has too many drug and sex?

    maybe I sound weird to some people, I’ll take any book with bloody torture anytime over book that talk much about being on the wrong side of drug and sex

    • It is present but not described, you know they are having sex, that’s all. And they drink a lot, no drugs but still, those girls are 14! And smoking. I saw several British films recently who depicted all the same. Deliquency, alcoholl, drugs, sex at a very early age. It is depressing. Jenn Ashworth really handles it well, she doesn’t need to include any too explicit scenes.

    • See, I hardly remember this one. I know I liked it at the time but it’s blurred now. Still, I remeber it was much better than most books out there.

      • I’m like that – after a few months you just remember good, bad, or indifferent. I had a look at it on Kindle last night and was pleasantly surprised to spot it was just £1.97, and I figured that was as cheap as it’ll get it, so snapped it up! The premise made me think of Megan Abbott, although I haven’t actually read her, tbh, as both my books by her have been spirited off by my 20-year-old daughter (anything to get her back to being a bookworm rather than constantly messing about with her iPhone!) She loved both of them.

          • I keep cunningly sending her (what I regard as) good books to get her back into reading – I’m hoping the fact she’s just moved into a flat of her own we rented for her will help, as she won’t have people around her all the time. I think she’s reading Unravelling Oliver at the moment, which she says is good – I haven’t got to that yet. I noticed Benn Ashworth had a new one out; fairly new going by the price. I put things on my Wish List and check it sporadically in the hope of some bargains!

            • I guess it can be a bit frustrating if you’re a book work yourself and your child isn’t so much. But it can chnage.
              I’ll have to look into that new book.

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