by Clare Ashton, 2012, Createspace pbk (8.99)/Kindle ($2.99)
When I first came across Clare Ashton’s debut novel on Kindle, I confess I frowned slightly at the title and thought that it was possibly a typo for “Penance.” It’s not, of course, but it is a superbly written mystery/love story set in a bleak little Cornish village, and the title is all too apt for the main character’s state of mind throughout.
Because the main character, Lucy, is not stereotypical of a “lesbian heroine” at all. She’s not a rugged go-getter or a brash adventuress. She’s a mousy 26-year-old Englishwoman who lives alone in a remote country cabin, yes, but only because her older boyfriend, Jake, perished in a horrific car accident one year before the story opens. An accident that still torments Lucy, as she pulled herself to safety and watched Jake burn. It is slowly revealed over the course of the novel that Lucy did not love Jake, and this fuels her guilt.
When we meet Lucy, the mood is set at once. She’s in a shop, hearing the whispers of the locals, who pity her, and she can barely function as she numbly moves about collecting tins of soup for her upcoming week of dinners. Although the word PTSD is never mentioned, it’s clear that Lucy suffers from it. Here’s Ashton’s brilliantly effective description, as Lucy glimpses herself in the shop mirror:
“I had never bothered with much makeup. Now I no longer bothered at all. My face was uniformly pale, undulating plainly over my cheeks with horizontal impassive lines for eyebrows and a mouth. I had my hair tied back which made me look more featureless. I was stooping, cowering over my basket. I could feel that I was drawing people’s attention the more I tried to hide. I couldn’t stand up straight and confident though.”
Lucy throughout the book is having confrontations she doesn’t want to have. She has to deal with the fear of living alone in her dark, cluttered cabin, worrying that someone is out to get her. She has to dodge Jake’s aggressive mother, who wants to pursue a case against the local garage owner for negligence leading to the accident. She has to keep Jake’s younger brother Ben, who fancies her, at arm’s length. She has to try to keep her sanity.
I get the sense that Ashton has been influenced by writers like Zoe Heller and Sarah Waters; there’s even a hint of the film Truly Madly Deeply, starring Alan Rickman, and Juliet Stevenson as a woman whose dead lover keeps reappearing in her house. Lucy feels Jake’s cold presence on and off, though he is not an angry ghost.
What I loved about this book was that although Lucy is in some ways an unlikeable narrator, she’s not an untrustworthy one. And so we root for her. And as she forms a warm friendship with the neighbor lady, Karen, who once dated Jake, we actually hope that Lucy can find some happiness.
Lucy is always out for a run or dashing around on her bike in the rain. For such an introverted narrator, she has a tough, tomboyish side. She works as a web programmer, a traditionally masculine occupation. She loves the countryside, with its mercurial weather, and there is a sense that the remote rural surroundings are both haunting and healing.
Ashton does descriptions of landscape very well. Here Karen and Lucy are out taking a walk and enjoy a moment’s peace:
“I don’t mind. I never get bored of this coastline. It looks different every day,” I said, watching the greys of the sea darken and swirl with the changing cloud overhead. Streaks of shimmering silver lit the grey water where the sun broke through the cloud in thin cuts. We watched a beam of sunlight narrow and fade as another one blinked open on another patch of sparkling water.
As Lucy grows closer to Karen, who is recovering from a bad breakup with her husband, we see a different side of her, protective. She loves Karen’s young toddler son but only tolerates Karen’s strangely jealous preteen daughter, Sophia. The love story takes place in fits and starts, and there are times when it seems like it will be thwarted by bad actors on all sides, or by Lucy’s timidity and fear (or inexperience).
This is not a sweet novel, for the most part. Lucy feels menace around her all the time, and a series of threatening incidents leads up to an attempt on her life. The well-drawn characters are burdened by inner and outer demons, but it serves to make the book more mesmerizing. I find that the most interesting lesbian fiction nowadays is told at a slant. The romantic relationship between the two women is not highlighted as the most important thing in Pennance, but neither is it squandered, and the story ends on a loving note of relief from stress and unease, which reminded me of Pip and Estella’s belated reconciliation at the end of Great Expectations.
And yes, I checked: Pennance exists and actually IS a village in Cornwall…