Fell begins with a beginning and ends with an ending. That may seem obvious, but most novels have a before and an after implicit or explicit in their body. We step into Fell however as the narrators awake and begin to recognise their own existence.
The Sycamores was Annette’s family home 50 years ago, now as she returns to the dilapidated seaside former boarding house she has reluctantly inherited the house awakens, the former occupants awaken, her parents awaken.
“Her key in the lock wakes us. It wakes the starlings too: they rise chattering out of the trees in the front garden and hurl themselves into the sky. They don’t fly far; before the door is open, they have landed, disgruntled, on the roof ridge. We flutter at each other like leaves, finding the words for things, laughing, stiff As bark, too wooden to grab and hold on tight.
Yes. We are. We are. Dazed as newborns! The proprietors of this place. A respectable house. Netty. Jack. That’s what they called us.”
So Jenn Ashworth leads us into her fourth novel, Fell, the story of a haunted house before it became haunted and to a degree, why.
“This is our house. And here is our daughter and the words for all our objects start to come back to us now, and with the words come the objects themselves: the house and the garden, and the town around it which unrolls like a map, right down to the salt marsh, and it is all ours and this is all we wanted and all we would have wished for if anyone had asked. To stay. To have it all back. To have stopcocks and light switches and – what are they called? plugholes – and sticking plasters and skirting boards and feather dusters. To have ourselves back. To be restored.”
Already we are made painfully aware of a loss, of a longing. Desiderium. What has been lost and what refound, however? We see see Annette in the now uncomfortable in the house she hasn’t visited in decades, that appears to have been empty for as long. But it is through her dead parents’ eyes that we see this, with their anxious compassion for their daughter who seems alone and unhappy here.
Memories return, through Annette first, of the summer of 1963. The house was full of lodgers, Netty’s ‘boys’ who worked in the seaside resort of Grange Over Sands, and 8 year old Annette remembers one. The one who hit her father at the lido. Her memory is false though, he didn’t hit Jack he touched him. It is a crucial scene that we then see replayed by the narrator.
On a hot afternoon at the lido Jack has a headache, but Netty is worried about the boys splashing and showing off by the pool, worried about little Annette, so she asks Jack to go down and speak to them. One of the boys grabs Jack and something happens. Timothy Richardson cures the headache with his grip, and more, cures Jack’s shortsightedness too. There is a moment of recognition which leads to Jack inviting Timothy to move into The Sycamores. Netty, we are to learn, is sick and Jack wants Timothy to cure her.
In this one short scene Ashworth introduces several of her major, intertwining, themes. Jack challenges Timothy but finds his challenge diverted, his masculinity neither affirmed nor demeaned yet somehow queried. Timothy’s healing power is introduced, and Netty’s illness. More importantly we see both the parental concern for Annette which reappears in their contempory incarnations, and Jack’s fears for his wife.
The longing in Fell, that forms the fundamental existence of the narrative voice, is as noted earlier, for a restoration. For Netty to be made well, for Jack’s role to be reaffirmed, for order and repair to the home, and to Annette’s life. Even Timothy, the fantasist who would be a tailor, a businessman, on Savile Row, back in Edinburgh, over in America, dreams of a control over his ability. Late on comes a scene at his old job with a butcher. Dead rabbits are somehow brought to life by Timothy’s power and so must be killed again to preserve reason and order. It is another scene of crucial import, narrated by the butcher with a sense of disbelief, fear and confusion, to Jack who has gone to investigate who the mysterious young healer is. Jack is afraid that his wife will not be healed, and that the boy is replacing him, with Netty or with Annette, he is unsure which. It is a longing for certainty of identity as much as for material result.
In the present Annette has other feelings of loss, the house was left to her not directly by her parents, but by Candy, the family friend who becomes Jack’s second wife. She is detached from it, unable to engage fully with the repairs, wanting immediate results. This climaxes in a heartbreaking scene of breakdown where she desperately attempts to cut down the huge trees in the garden herself, at night. Just as Jack helplessly watches Netty’s illness, the parents agonise as their daughter suffers. Each character/voice struggles impotently against entropy.
Candy too has a longing. A religious woman, who believes herself to be able to heal by faith, she also tries to help Netty. Unlike Timothy, she has no ability for miracles, and eventually her healing visits transmute into excuses to bring food for Netty, Jack and Annette. In this way her need to help is partially satisfied, whereas Timothy is more complex. He regrets his ability, whilst knowing he must use it, and dreams of both adventure and domesticity. He also knows he cannot ultimately save Netty the way Jack needs, or the way he saved the rabbits, the dead bird in the grate, or how he repaired Jack’s vision. His wish seems ambigious, to be able to heal properly, to not be able to heal at all.
This is the story of Fell, a haunting of lost certainties. The telling of Fell is equally fluctuating. The first person plural semi-omniscient voice is suffused with moments of recognition. Both Jack and Netty are dead, ghosts in effect intrinsic to the house, so they look back into various viewpoints. This leads to Jack/Netty being in Jack’s head as he rages at Timothy to help the dying Netty, a view that Netty obviously didn’t see in realtime. Simultaneously Netty/Jack is in Netty as she is upset at Jack’s distress. And both see Timothy and how he ses them. Through their telling we see Annette return but nothing of her intervening years. She has awakened her parents’ ghosts somehow as one, and we remember Timothy as he taught the child simple stage magic recognising some innate ability of which the older woman clearly has no knowledge.
Fell, the title has various interpretations, is different to Jenn Ashworth’s three previous novels in the brooding imminence of doom that seeps through every scene. Previously Ashworth has created blackly comic characters, narrators who are unaware of their unreliability, but the voice of Fell questions our assumptions of honesty. So much is made plain early in the book that spoilers aren’t an issue really. The sense is always of knowing what’s going to happen, if not how exactly, and therefore doubting it. The fluctuations of the omniscient voice had me feeling watched as the characters were watching/watched. At times it’s Netty, or other times Jack, or is it Netty and Jack, or the house itself, or maybe as I began to suspect, the narrator is actually, and that’s a spoiler of sorts. Unless you’re a close reader, recognising what you’re told.
There are similarities though with Ashworth’s short fiction in the details of the dark shadows of domesticity that she shares with Shirley Jackson. The boarding house setting, the small, already declining seaside resort, the shifting sands all contribute that solid mundanity that the fantastic elements need. Fell exists, like Grange over Sands, on the edge of something. The fellside above, the sea around, and that moment in the early 60s when things were changing in a world that hadn’t quite reached this small town. Jack’s fascination with the Great Train Robbery, Timothy’s fantasy of Savile Row, Netty’s desire to join the guided walk across the treacherous sands, are dreams of escape, but oddly grounded escape.
Fell is an often discomforting look at how it feels to watch loved ones suffer, and it’s an intriguing twist on the haunted house trope. It also looks askew at faith healing and masculinity. Jack’s provider and carer roles are usurped by Timothy and by Candy, yet Candy is replacing Netty, and perhaps Timothy too challenges Candy’s self perceived carer role. And then in contrast, the only other characters of note, Annette’s ultimate saviours, the couple Eve and Maddy whose relationship is simple and unquestioned here.
We never learn why Annette stayed away, but we are left instead to wonder at her reluctant longing. There’s almost denial yet she has brought back Jack and Netty, and she will lay them to rest again, scatter them to the winds, the bonfire, the rooftops, the saltmarsh that once was sands. And then, nothing. The end is, for once, an ending. One last thing to admire in a novel to admire greatly.
Fell is published by Sceptre £18.99