We hated them but we never, ever suggested we should have them taken out. It might have been the money but more likely it just didn’t occur to us. You worked round things and played the best hand you could with the cards you’d been dealt. That was our way. Whatever the neighbours said and however badly we needed the money, we clung on, as if the house wasn’t a gift to us from Jack’s dead parents, but their flesh and blood itself.
The main strand of the novel, however, begins in the summer of 1963, when Annette is eight years old. Along with her father, Jack, and mother, Netty, the family survives on the rent from the lodgers who occupy the downstairs rooms. Unbeknown to her daughter, Netty is already riddled with cancer, when, on a rare family outing to the lido, Jack’s myopia is suddenly cured by a violent laying-on-of-hands at the poolside. Thinking Tim Richardson, the young man responsible, will save Netty’s life now the doctors have virtually washed their hands of her, Jack lures him to the house with an invitation to Sunday dinner. Soon he’s installed in the remaining vacant room, although strangely reluctant to begin treating Netty. As her condition worsens, and Tim’s power in the household grows, Annette is increasingly neglected, a ghost in her own house.
Like Sal in The Summer That Melted Everything, Tim doesn’t particularly welcome his healing hands; their capacities sporadic and uncontrollable, their effects on ailing bodies never clear. While Netty puts her trust in him, the reader is never sure of his motivations: is he an ordinary young man with pretensions of becoming a tailor or a swindling fraud? As in Death and the Seaside, the shoreline, with its tidal oscillations and more gradual transformation from beach to saltmarsh, is the perfect setting for a story about the borderland between fantasy and reality, and how nothing stays the same indefinitely (p115):
one day the wind will turn again and when it does the Kent remember itself and advance on the marsh to drown the cordgrass. After the spring tides new channels will emerge overnight and turn the sea-washed turf into a treacherous maze of unmapped islands, slippery knolls and sucking mudflats.
I’d read good things about Jenn Ashworth’s previous three novels but somehow hadn’t got round to reading any but, when I saw it was set, like Owl Song at Dawn, around Morecambe Bay and centred on a guesthouse to boot, I decided it was time to give her writing a try. But seeing that it was narrated by the spirits of Annette’s parents, I had some reservations; as I’ve said before, the supernatural really isn’t my thing. However, I found them quite endearing – especially their coming into and going out of consciousness at the novel’s beginning and end – and not at all intrusive (but I’ve held off from mentioning them until this point in order not to deter other realists). They also serve to emphasise Annette’s lack of substance by, despite not having bodies or voices, seeming more real than she is.
The culture and attitudes of the 60s is well captured in various small details (although I did wonder at Jack paying the driver when he gets on the bus). Because it chimes with the latest topic of Irene Waters’ Times Past project, I’ve picked out the poignancy of Netty’s hospital experience in which the patients’ emotions prove an untidy distraction from the “real” work (p60-61):
‘We’ll have none of that carry-on, please,’ and this is how Netty learned she’d been crying in the night. She said Netty wasn’t to be a nuisance but should lie still and concentrate on getting herself better. So Netty was good. She lay still and felt blood seeping into the thick pad tucked between her legs … She was trying to cheer him up and be positive, like the doctors had said, but Jack only squeezed her hand and squinted at his crossword because he was ashamed of her. She was ashamed of herself.
Due to the pressures inherent in the job, I imagine things haven’t actually moved on much as we would like.
Published by Sceptre Books, who provided my review copy, Fell is a compellingly atmospheric novel, well deserving of its place on my growing haunted houses bookshelf.