I inhaled this book with the enthusiasm of a great steak dinner, unable to stop. The premise is dark,
exposing girlhood libertines and the trashy excesses of a small town’s local media. Taking an unapologetic stab at the duplicity of teenagers while also revealing in the folly of their sexual misadventures, Ashworth highlights the battle between the ordinariness of love and how a girl must live her life endlessly dominated by poverty and chronically low self-esteem. Although Cold Light doesn’t have the thrilling tension of Ashworth’s first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, the tale is still adept at unfolding the lives of those forced to live on the edge.
Opening her pages in
stark, brittle prose, Ashworth introduces down-on-her-luck Laura. Laura cleans shopping centers and lives in a council flat that smells of “crisps and fags." Damaged psychologically over the death of her school friend Chloe, Laura inhabits a world of lost and broken dreams. Her only real contact is her old school friend Emma, who is mostly slick, absent, and stupid, immersed in her own life of depression, anxiety attacks and phobias. Spending lonely nights with a
popular local television presenter who is conducting a ceremony to mark the first spade of earth, Laura and Emma are barely able to talk about Chloe. Watching a memorial fund established by the Council and Chloe's parents to celebrate her life, what starts as a jolly coverage of a foundation-laying ceremony quickly turns into breaking news.
In a reality as unerring as it is unnerving, Laura soon realizes she must hold close to her heart all of Chloe's secrets. Laura recalls her life in the late 1990s, where we meet the real Chloe: a tawdry, naughty, foul-mouthed teenage miscreant. Laura remembers the things that happened during that winter: “it’s like watching myself in a reconstruction, some girl who isn’t real enough to be me stumbling through the corridors of school.” The recent disappearance of local man Daniel Wilson and the simultaneous appearance of a prolific sex offender add to this heightened sense of paranoia in a city where parents are too busy drinking and injecting themselves to notice their children haven’t been to school. While there’s no evidence to connect the missing Wilson to either Chloe or Laura, Chloe’s parents are positive that Laura is quite possibly a good influence on Chloe.
Almost any predominantly working class area of the UK could provide the social and dysfunctional family settings reflecting
the horrific events portrayed in the novel. In a society that often turns a blind or indifferent eye to its less savory failings, Ashworth’s spot-on descriptions of Preston are unique as are many of the characters who inhabit the classrooms and the housing estates. Eerily evocative, the book's multi-person perspective gives us a cross-section of all worlds, from Laura’s view of Chloe’s older boyfriend--moody, truculent Carl, who says horrible things about Chloe--to her guilt and worry over Wilson and her concern over Emma’s “strange shouldering in” and taking Chloe away from her.
Laura herself is a sly and patient invention. She inventories every moment she's with Chloe, setting each scene briskly via visual details that often come in sharply observed ice-cold tones. In one scene, she becomes Chloe’s confidante in a toilet stall even as her ministrations set in place a stunning act of betrayal by Chloe, who seems to have a full complement of neuroses and prejudices of an altogether alien kind. The world gets whiter, and there’s a bright quality to the light which acts as a dark counterpoint to Ashworth’s brutal, oppressive, and at times altogether sordid landscapes.
Although the plot at times feels aimless, this is perhaps an intentional way for Ashworth to project the aimlessness of teenage lives. Despite
her often brutal and bleak subject matter, the author weaves the various threads of Laura and Chloe’s friendship into a vivid portrayal of innocence turned sour.