Jenn Ashworth’s Fell is a surreal tale of coming to terms with grief and hope. It begins with Annette Clifford who has come back to her childhood home after the death of Candy, her stepmother, with whom she had a difficult relationship. She is now the sole beneficiary of The Sycamores, her family house, perched on the edge of the enigmatic Morecambe Bay.

For Annette, there are no fond memories back in this place as her childhood was traumatic, to say the least. She was the only child of Jack and Netty. Her arrival back into their beloved house has woken up her dead parents’ spirits and it is through their narration that we learn about Annette’s painful childhood in The Sycamores, which housed boys as lodgers. Netty was responsible for taking care of the boys who were considered almost part of the family. The earning was good, and the family was happy, that is until Netty was diagnosed with cancer.

Most of the story follows the long-suffering Netty as she is slowly eaten up by the festering cancer and the deteriorating family life. As all treatments fail, Jack becomes increasingly desperate to save his beloved wife when during a chance encounter, he runs into Timothy Richardson. Timothy is a charming, enigmatic boy who inadvertently cures Jack’s failing eyesight. Jack views this as a glimmer of hope and quickly asks Timothy to move in to their home and try curing Netty.

By this time, Netty’s condition has worsened so much that Jack is compelled to ask other lodgers to move out, as she no longer has the strength to play hostess. The couple seem to have pinned all their hopes on the young boy’s mysterious gift but he seems to have ulterior motives. Timothy has so far relied on his charisma to sail through life and after moving into Jack and Netty’s beautiful home, harbours a secret hope of becoming the master of the house. However, soon enough, Jack tires of his charming antics and asks him to exercise his powers for Netty’s betterment.

The story comes to life with the vividly graphical depiction of Annette’s hometown, Grange-over-Sands. Readers who enjoyed last year’s Costa Winner The Loney would find many similar elements here – the dark, menacing Morecambe Bay, the perpetual dampness which clings to things and darkly sinister happenings with a touch of the occult. “So a place for healing – a place for sick people to come and rest, to get better. To soak up a bit of the ozone.” The town is described as being rumoured to have healing properties and magical willow water which makes Netty’s terminal illness all the more ironic.

While Netty and Jack struggle with her illness, Annette is left largely ignored and has to entertain herself in the sprawling house. She is never fully told about her mother’s illness so her trauma is manifold. As an adult, she is estranged from her dad and stepmother; from what we gather from the narrative, she has lived a lonely life and still holds a grudge against her parents for their detachment and her dad’s inability to form a close bond with her, while she was already deprived of maternal love.

Annette comes full circle as she returns to her childhood home. She gets flashbacks of her early years in this house and takes a trip down memory lane, along with her parents. People say hindsight is 20/20, which is definitely true here as Jack and Netty’s spirits feel regret at the loneliness their daughter had to endure while they were caught up in the eye of the storm in the shape of a protracted illness. Annette also finds it in her to forgive her parents after viewing her past through her newer, more mature vantage point.

Fell is an evocative tale that blurs the line between the corporeal and spiritual worlds while maintaining the realism of the story. The use of transcendental entities as narrators allows the writer the latitude to flit between characters, eras and worlds with liberty. The beauty of this book lies in how uplifting and life-affirming it eventually is, even though death is the predominant theme of the story.

★★★★

Fell was published by Sceptre on 6 July 2016

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