I’ve spent a long weekend at home in Somerset with the rest of my family, doing restful things and enjoying the countryside (though the train journey home was a nightmare – took eight hours from door to door, and is two and half hours in a car…) When I’m on trains, I try to catch up with some of my non-university reading, especially things I’ve promised that I’ll read for months and months…
But A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth isn’t a review book (plenty of those waiting, looking at me impatiently) but one my housemate Mel lent me a while ago. (She first heard about Jenn when Jenn submitted work to Mel’s flash fiction website, The Pygmy Giant. Go have an explore.) Oh, and it came second in the Guardian’s ‘Not The Booker’ prize. A Kind of Intimacy is a novel from earlier this year, about Annie – ‘morbidly obese, lonely, and hopeful’, says the blurb, though I should add that the blurb gives away most of the plot and should be ignored before reading. Annie moves to a new neighbourhood, with just Mr. Tibs the cat for company. As she’s bringing the boxes in, she meets her next door neighbour Neil, who initially mistakes her for the removal man. She recognises him, but can’t place where they’d previously met.
Annie senses a closeness between herself and Neil, not hindered by his partner Lucy, who is everything Annie is not: very young, thin, beautiful. But Annie realises that she has to keep an eye on Lucy, if she is going to rescue Neil from his current life, and set one up with him. These attempts are increasingly bizarre, but all very just in Annie’s mind. She overhears Lucy insulting her – so she pushes handfuls of garbage through her letterbox. She digs up Lucy’s primroses; she even takes washing from Lucy’s washing line.
The novel is from Annie’s first-person perspective, and so Ashworth deftly gives us a viewpoint of somebody who is unbalanced, but is unaware of it – the narrative manages to tread the line between internal logic (all Annie’s actions make sense to her) and insanity (the reader slowly realises how unhinged Annie is.) But unhinged isn’t perhaps the right word – because we also see, in flashbacks, what events have led to Annie’s current state – her relationship with her parents, for example, and her first boyfriend. There is the ongoing questions as to whether or not she has a husband and child – she tells some people that she does, and some that she doesn’t.
It is no easy task, showing us Annie’s perspective, while still allowing the reader to understand how limited and delusional that perspective can be. She notices everything – ‘Neil shuffled, took his hands out of his pockets, and sat down next to me on the couch. Our knees pointed at each other, which I knew from my reading about non-verbal communication was a good sign.’ – but not the motives behind the actions. She interprets Neil’s glances with Lucy as trying to let her down gently; her neighbour laughing at her as anxious concern. The reader is able to see the truth through the mist of Annie’s misconceptions – though there is still often a haze, as Annie’s most bizarre actions are only mentioned in passing, by others. A Kind of Intimacy has a lot in common with Lisa Glass’s excellent (though very disturbing) book Prince Rupert’s Teardrop, which I reviewed here – Ashworth’s novel is perhaps not quite so clever as Glass’s, nor so unsettling, but that doesn’t stop it being pretty clever and unsettling anyway.
As a character study, and as an experiment in how narrative can be used to reveal and conceal, A Kind of Intimacy is a triumph – that the novel is also fast-paced, compelling, and of escalating intensity makes it exceptional. Perhaps not my normal fare, and not gentle or relaxing, but it’s always good to jolt myself with this sort of novel – I recommend you give it a go yourself.