IoS book review: The Friday Gospels, By Jenn Ashworth

The lives of Latter Day Saints

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Friday Gospels, Jenn Ashworth's third novel, is a tale of family dysfunction set among the Lancastrian community of Latter Day Saints (also known as the Mormons). Narrated from five different points of view, this deft, funny and often unsettling quintet of dramatic monologues gradually harmonises into a sensational plot.

The catalyst is Gary Leeke, the middle child of Martin and Pauline, who is returning to England after two years spent working as a missionary in Utah. Everyone has the highest hopes for the prodigal's return – not only his parents but his sister Jeannie and the entire Mormon community of northern England. The only exceptions are Gary's ne'er-do-well older brother Julian, and indeed Gary himself. Having failed to convert a single soul in America, he feels both a fraud and a failure.

Ideas of home are pivotal to The Friday Gospels. As Gary flies through 2008's cloud of volcanic ash, he is confused about where his real dwelling place is: his religion's spiritual birthplace in Utah or his actual home in Manchester. His father, Martin, is pondering similar questions. Fated to live a life of very English reluctance ("We Leekes are a long line of shruggers. Abdicators of responsibility"), he exerts himself only for Bovril, his chocolate Labrador, and a growing infatuation with fellow dog-fancier Nina. This has developed to the extent that Martin is considering abandoning his family, if only he can summon the courage or the energy.

Ashworth skilfully exploits the dramatic monologue to portray her characters' imperfect knowledge of their imperfect inner lives. The Leekes are practically defined by their inability to communicate with each other, or anyone else. What is especially impressive is how Ashworth shuffles her cast to create maximum narrative tension, and distinguishes one voice from another: Pauline's torrent of unexamined feelings, or Jeannie's precise vulnerability.

Along the way, there are wonderful set-pieces whose cringe-worthy mix of comedy and pathos put me in mind of Mike Leigh: Pauline's excruciating but revelatory trip to the supermarket; Martin's allegorical tussle with his greenhouse; Jeannie's hallucinatory hockey match.

In 2011, Ashworth was nominated by The Culture Show as one of Britain's 12 Best New Novelists. There are parts of The Friday Gospels which suggest that she is not the finished article just yet: Julian's contradictions didn't always convince like the others, and the character Nina was a touch too omnipresent. But this is still a serious, distinctive and eminently readable story of faith and family; about the demands of the world and the desires of the individual.