The inability ever to really know a person is a truth acknowledged by E M Forster in Aspects of the Novel: external signs must "serve well enough as a basis for society and even for intimacy". Jenn Ashworth chooses Forster as one of two epigraphs to her hugely readable debut novel.
So what do we know of her protagonist, Annie? Her twenties are nearly gone (her sanity, too, as Ashworth terrifyingly reveals). We know that she is an overweight loner who books appointments with herself. We know that she married the first real adult she ever spoke to; that her husband and daughter are mysteriously absent. "I am a realist," she tells us, but we will soon know not to trust Annie, who joins fiction's unreliable narrators.
What Annie thinks she knows about others is, in this first-person narrative, crucial to the plot. "I suppose you could say I have a gift for reading people," she believes, but the wide disparity between her readings and reality will cause gripping comedy and tragedy. Ashworth skilfully erodes the thin boundaries separating lives, as Annie "reads" her new neighbours, Neil and Lucy, mistaking Neil's platonic behaviour as proof of their "special connection". Annie lives for months without another human being touching her, mirroring her mental dislocation. She had previously had an excess of touch.
"The past beats inside me like a second heart", wrote John Banville in The Sea: the second epigraph. Annie's dark, unstable history leaks through the prose, never fully disclosed, as if she has buried it too deeply to dig up, although seeping bloodily into the present.
This is a compelling novel about the inability to know others and ourselves; that self-knowledge, when it comes, might be too painful to bear. Annie lies to herself, convinced that her atrocities are "fair-minded" and "human". Her distinctive voice becomes so intimate that, while we laugh and condemn, the uncomfortable knowledge dawns that there might be a potential Annie in us all as she teaches us "how human beings need gentleness".