A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth

I can’t pretend that I invented the phrase “the dialectic of isolated consciousness.” The credit for that must be given to translator Richard Pevear. I was reading Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground for an upcoming post when I came across Pevear’s phrase in the introduction. The phrase stopped me in my tracks–not only is it a brilliant description of the unnamed narrator’s mental processes, but it also represented a bizarre coincidence as the phrase also fits  A Kind of Intimacy from British author Jenn Ashworth. I’m not going to provide a full review; for that (and an interview of the author), go here for my review at MostlyFiction (Disclaimer: volunteer reviewers for MostlyFiction review advance reader copies from the publisher).

A Kind of Intimacy is told by unreliable narrator Annie Fairhurst. I am a sucker for this type of narrative–always have been, and in this novel my favourite narrative form reaches perfection. Annie–an obese twenty-something moves into a new neighbourhood, and she has some high expectations. There are hints of a dark past, and Annie moves in and hopes to reinvent herself–through the dubious aid of self-help books borrowed from the library. The problem is that not everyone in the neighbourhood is keen to know Annie. On the first morning in her new house, she propositions the milkman, and then she eavesdrops on the neighbours, Neil and Lucy. She  hears Lucy making snide comments about Annie having to get custom-made knickers, but Neil comes to his new neighbour’s defence. From this moment, the die is cast. Annie develops an obsession for Neil and a deep hatred for his skinny girlfriend, Lucy. Here’s Annie striking back at Lucy, guerrilla style using the contents of a rubbish bin:

I scooped out the contents softly, filled both fists and went out the front of the house to  push the whole lot through Lucy’s letter box. They were making such a noise out there in the garden she wouldn’t even notice, and by the time they did there’d be a filthy mess to clean up on the hall carpet. I went back into my house, and returned to the pedal bin, making silent trips back and forth until it was empty.

‘Annie reacts with appropriate anger when her human rights are infringed,’ I recited, which was an assertiveness affirmation I’d picked up from one of the new books. You were supposed to write them on slips of paper and stick them to the mirrors in the house , but there were too many, the scraps of paper kept falling off and drifting to the carpet like oblong snowflakes, and so I just spent some time learning them instead. I said it ten times as I washed my bloody and dirtied hands with lily of the valley liquid soap then I went to my bedroom for a lie down. I stayed there a couple of hours, only coming down to get a  tub of ice cream and a tin of condensed milk because I hadn’t eaten anything since the sausages and I was hungry again.

A Kind of Intimacy is wickedly funny, and a great deal of the humour is found in the fact that we readers become Annie’s confidante (back to that “dialectic of isolated consciousness” again). Here’s Annie justifying her vandalism to the reader:

You don’t need to tell me: I know I demeaned only myself that evening. When I got up the next morning I knew it, and pushed my new couch over to the window so I could look out of it while I nursed my sugar hangover. I saw Lucy leave the house, and return a few hours later laden with shopping bags. I didn’t dare to go out myself in case Neil approached me and asked me what I was playing at. I decided that Lucy herself deserved putting straight on a thing or two, but my actions, the incident with the rubbish, affected Neil as well as her and so was manifestly unfair.

After Lucy decides to give some bitchy self-improvement advice to her chubby hostess at Annie’s housewarming party, battle is declared.

A Kind of Intimacy is going to be one of my best reads of the year. I loved this book–for its humour and for its bizarre anti-heroine. But what is it about “the dialectic of isolated consciousness” that makes it such an intoxicating narrative form? Is it because readers are allowed a unique glimpse into someone’s twisted thinking? Everyone bends the truth at some time or another, and we all have the tendency to tell the story from our angle. Annie’s presentation of events is fraught with madness, lies, self-justification, and twisted logic, and yet her vision of the world is at times disarmingly prim and decidedly engaging.  Annie tells whoppers about her past, and yet at the same time, as bizarre as it sounds, there’s a sort of naked honesty in Annie’s approach. Here’s Annie:

“so whatever elaborations I was forced to make on my past that evening, I like to think I kept to the spirit of the truth, and captured the essentials. That is what counts.”

Other examples of the “dialectic of isolated consciousness” (can’t get over that phrase)–Stephen Benatar’s wonderful novel Wish Her Safe at Home and Patrick McGrath’s Dr. Haggard’s Disease. And Notes from Underground, of course. So if anyone out there has any other titles to add, leave a comment. Think of it as an addiction….

6 Comments

Filed under Ashworth Jenn

6 responses to “A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth

  1. I wondered if you’d mention the Benatar. It did sound as if there might be some similarities.

  2. Both main characters see the new start as an opportunity for a make-over of their lives. Benatar’s Rachel Waring is fixated on images from films, whereas in Annie’s case, it’s the self-help market of books and DVDs.

    Rachel is a very happy person, but Annie, well there’s something very subversive about her. Perhaps it’s in the way she takes the images of societal perfection and converts them into her own warped interpretations–the housewarming party is a perfect example of that.

    Anyway, a wonderful, wonderful book.

  3. leroyhunter

    The Benatar comparison seems like a strong one alright. I wondered where I’d read about this before: it was praised on the Guardian Books blog by Sam Jordison as part of their alt-Booker contest last year.

    Looks interesting – I was enthused by your review of Wish Her Safe… so something you reckon to be similar but even better has to be worth a try…

  4. I wouldn’t say that A Kind of Intimacy is better that Wish Her Safe at Home. There are some distinct differences–As I mentioned Rachel is happy, almost effusive, but Annie is much more subversive and warped. Annie goes on eating binges (I read in the article you mentioned that some people were questioning why the author made Annie a large woman) and obsesses about modern images of perfection. The book also gets into the idea of the relationships between neighbours–always sticky, I think. After all just because we have the fortune (or misfortune) to live next to someone doesn’t mean we necessarily have a thing in common or even like each other, and yet as the novel points out, we end up sharing ‘a kind of intimacy’. Annie eavesdrops and imagines a life next door and extrapolates from there. Living next door gives her access, but then Lucy isn’t immune from that either.

    I know someone very like Annie. So much so that the two (fictional and real) even use some of the same phrases. It’s uncanny. As I read the book I could hear the real person’s voice speaking the words.

    If a reader loved Wish Her Safe at Home, I think there’s an excellent chance they would also enjoy A Kind of Intimacy.

  5. Clever setup, the suburban scene, the self-help books, the unreliable narrative, but I just couldn’t get into it. Back to Thompson.

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