Like the oxymoronic title of Jenn Ashworth's haunting second novel, its insidious and unsettling power resides in the tension created by opposites. The tenderness and delicacy of the 14-year-old girl is juxtaposed with a capacity for great brutality. Set in a northern town as claustrophobic as the relationships depicted, Cold Light unflinchingly tells the sad story of teenage friendship gone awry in the most devastating way.
Ashworth continues her exploration of how far we can really know a person, a theme compellingly grappled with in her darkly comic debut, A Kind of Intimacy. There, the obsessed protagonist Annie convinces herself that her neighbour is in love with her. The characters of Cold Light also live largely within their own heads, with swarming neuroses which makes the reading experience akin to being surrounded by fun-house mirrors. The protagonists – and reader – frantically try to assess the correct contours of the characters closest to them.
Following the death of a teenager, a reconstruction process is under way to work out exactly what happened. The search for the truth peels back layers until we ask: is there any real person inside? Perception is at the heart of the narrative. Chloe is hiding from a security camera when we meet her, and imagery of photography and film is abundant, as characters are refracted through a myriad of viewpoints. These characters are comprised of the stories told about them: composites of rumour, gossip, mishearing.
Ashworth's real subject is how we are unwittingly hurt by those in whom we have placed trust. Cold Light is filled with bruises, bleeding and psychological bludgeoning. A novel also about the power and pitfalls of narrative, it is told by the hand of a true storyteller.