Phrases like ‘talented young novelist’ and ‘exciting new author’ have taken up residence in a perpetual orbit around Jenn Ashworth’s name.
Following on from her success with sinister-suburbia titles A Kind of Intimacy and Cold Light, Ashworth has received plaudits across mainstream and indie media platforms. She was nominated as one of The Culture Show’s top 12 New Best British Novelists and won a Betty Trask Award for A Kind of Intimacy.
When her third novel, The Friday Gospels, was announced everyone at For Books’ Sake got very excited, and the news that it was based on her Mormon upbringing only hyped up our speculation and intrigue. Although Ashworth was raised in the Lancashire Church of Latter-day Saints she has avoided writing about them until now.
I spent a long time thinking about the ethics of representing the community in fiction, about what my motives were, about what I wanted to achieve.“This felt like too important a topic to handle without sensitivity and a kind of writerly neutrality that it took me a long time to achieve,” she explains. “I spent a long time thinking about the ethics of representing the community in fiction, about what my motives were, about what I wanted to achieve.”
Ashworth has apparently now achieved that “neutrality” and the reader is presented a disturbing, rolicking read which does provide an entirely new perspective upon the Mormon faith, while maintaining its narrative integrity.
The Leeke family are waiting for their oldest son Gary to return from a 2 year religious mission in Utah, and viciously affectionate mum Pauline is the only one mustering up any enthusiasm.
Oldest son Julian is planning a kidnap, dad Martin is attempting an illicit affair with a dog breeder, daughter Jeannie is 14 and pregnant and none of them are particularly bothered about welcoming Gary home.
The contemporary furore around Mormonism has focused upon the American side of the church; The Book of Mormon musical and the recent US election with it’s focus upon Mitt Romney’s religion. Ashworth has some pertinent observations on this “quintessential American faith”, arguing:
“There’s a strong emphasis on personal responsibility and free agency. And all that’s coupled with a very seedy history of polygamy and racism. Utah has a reputation for being a kind of Mormon paradise of strong ‘family values’, a great place to live if you’re LDS [Church of Latter-day Saints].”
Mormonism is one of the most tempting religions to rubberneck and Ashworth pulls no punches with regards to why it’s captured the popular imagination.
“[Utah] has very high levels of teenage suicide, antidepressant use and, apparently, internet porn,” she explains. “That kind of contradiction isn’t exclusive to Mormonism – every organisation and individual has its shadow side.
I believe that for many Americans, Mormonism’s culture is very familiar and very strange at the same time, and popular interest in it might be a way of thinking about those kind of contradictions and inconsistencies in wider society.”
When For Books’ Sake spoke to Ashworth nearly two years ago, she made her aversion to grandstanding clear. This attitude to narrative and tone is even more pronounced in The Friday Gospels and Ashworth evidently worked hard to ensure that it didn’t become a soap-box or therapist couch for her own childhood experiences.
“I’ve always felt I had something interesting to say about the British Mormon experience. That it might be possible to write a story that would speak to a non-Mormon readership but would also feel familiar and relevant to LDS communities too,” she says.
The strength of The Friday Gospels lies in Ashworth’s ability to juggle multiple Big Issues (rape, religious hypocrisy, sexual repression, petty tyrannies and loss of faith) without allowing them to overwhelm the narrative. All the characters are perfectly realised without becoming vehicles for a clunking agenda.
When asked which character is her favourite (a question she’d previously compared with being asked to name a favourite child) Ashworth’s affection for her creations become apparent.
“Yesterday, I would have said Jeannie. Her vulnerability and her anger, the hero worship of her big brother… On other days, my favourite is Gary. I admire sincerity, and people who aren’t afraid to look a little odd to other people. He’s such a courageous character. Maybe tomorrow it will be Julian. He’s a difficult character to like, I know. But I hope there’s a little nobility about him towards the end of the book.”
Due to their gender and Northern roots, Preston-based Ashworth is frequently compared to Jeanette Winterson (in the light of which Catherine Cookson seems an obvious bedfellow). However, it has been argued that Ashworth’s writing is far closer to San-Franciscan Shirley Jackson in style and subject matter.
When presented with the Winterson comparison, Ashworth is suitably deferential to Winterson’s reputation, but acknowledges a certain frustration with such pigeonhole tactics.
“I admire Winterson’s work a lot, so it’s flattering to be compared to her, but I can’t see that people would make that comparison if one of us was a man and we lived in different places,” she adds.
Cursed phrases like ‘Chick-Lit’ and ‘Mummy Porn’ invariably stalk female writers and Ashworth is understandably reluctant to accept geographical or gendered labels. “I try and insulate myself from that kind of categorising. It doesn’t feel helpful for me, as a writer,” she replies.
For now Ashworth does not seem overly concerned about being labelled a Mormon writer and all talk of future projects is permeated by references to The Friday Gospels, admitting that she is finding it difficult to let go of some of the peripheral characters.
“I’m working on a short story, just for my own amusement, really, called Carole’s Baby… I’m getting quite interested in ghosts,” says Ashworth. “One of the themes of The Friday Gospels – healing – is something that I’d like to pick up again and examine in a bit more detail.”
Ashworth remains guarded about what form her next project will take, stating coyly, “The next thing… is at such an early stage that it could be anything at all by the time I’m done with it.”
But with her previous successes and the beautifully crafted The Friday Gospels, it seems likely that Jenn Ashworth’s star will continue to rise.
Beulah Maud Devaney
(Photograph by Gonzo Pics)