I read a story in the Warwick Review last summer: “Sometimes Gulls Kill Other Gulls,” by A.J. Ashworth, whose work I didn’t know. It was spare, atmospheric writing, understated. A girl on a beach is befriended then bullied by a sinister boy. It involved an elderly dog that drowns in a rock pool in a cave. The undercurrents of the story were as strong, and as unobtrusive, as the undercurrents of the sea round the cave.
The biographical notes said that Ashworth’s story collection would be published later in the year. I made a note to look out for it. Meanwhile, I came across a recording on the Internet of an interview with Ashworth on Radio Lancashire. She went on to read the opening of two stories: “The Rings Of Saturn,” and “The Future Husband.” The latter especially intrigued me. A woman watches a man, a stranger, as he looks at a mummy, a high-born Egyptian girl, in a glass case. She fantasizes about marriage, invents a lifetime of shared jokes and memories of this first encounter; more disturbingly, she fantasizes of being nursed by him through serious illness, during which she identifies with the Egyptian girl, with her sand-striated teeth.
Partly because I had once written a story about a man who befriends a preserved body in the British Museum, but mainly because of the power and strangeness of Ashworth’s writing, the story began to haunt me. I even dreamt about it, which has never happened to me before. I was even more determined to read the collection, although slightly afraid of being let down by the rest, as sometimes happens with first collections.
Quite the reverse – I was stunned by its power and range. Story after story impressed me. Some of them I would dearly love to be able to claim as my own.
There’s variety here, of tone, attack, pacing, of lives, mostly cramped but in different ways, the characters ranging from childhood to old age, yet every life fully inhabited, written from within. That is equally true when Ashworth writes across the gender divide. In “Bone Fire,” a teenage boy rebuilds a bonfire – one of his few personal skills – in his school’s basement, and sets it alight. His cockiness, his hurt, are deftly sketched in, his encounters with his female teacher, part-erotic, part-defiant. Interestingly, it’s written in the second person, which has a distancing, clarifying effect. It also, I thought, might have made it easier for Ashworth to write across gender.
But no. There’s a later story, “Trees,” also male but written in the first person, and again entirely convincing in its portrayal of a boy trying to free himself from the taint of his father’s conviction as a paedophile. From its description of his bruised wariness, of his encounters with girls and other boys in a local youth club/social centre, you would assume the writer to be an ex-sixteen year old male.
Or, from “Zero Gravity,” a still-fifteen year old, a member of a girl-gang that taunts another member, about her choice of name for her unborn baby. This story is written in the first plural until, with striking effectiveness, the narrator detaches herself from the gang, describing in first singular her access of sympathy and its subsequent rejection.
In “Rings Of Saturn,” an elderly woman is being interviewed by a local reporter about her coming Golden Wedding anniversary as her husband, a respected astronomer, drifts further out of her reach into the deep space of Alzheimer’s. This again is in the second person, observant of the young reporter’s incomprehension, aware that the news story she will write will be superficial, another’s life entirely.
The astronomical metaphors crop up frequently, but always effectively. Like all her metaphors, they are there to illuminate, not show off. The same is true of her descriptions, adjectives, all needle-sharp, no fluff. A child pale as oats, a telephone voice curtailed into a blinking striplight of sound.
The latter is from the oddest, most powerful story, “Overnight Miracles,” in which a woman pays for rituals given over the phone, designed to bring back to life her just-dead husband. They almost succeed – he begins to revive, speaks (in an electronic, computer voice), subsides. She desperately dials the number for a further ritual, a miracle, to be told it’s the wrong number. She is left listening to the automatic message, “the number you have dialled has not been recognised…”
It’s a tour de force in an overwhelmingly assured collection, and so doesn’t stand out for just that reason. There are 14 stories here. I could remark at length on all of them. But no paraphrase or quotation really conveys the mastery, the strangeness, or the depth of compassion here.
Besides, there is no need: the collection is there – waiting to be read.
David Rose is the author of Vault: An Anti-Novel.