We’ve all met them at one time or another. A kind of acquaintance or friend that lacks a sort of awareness, doesn’t quite fit it, oblivious to social cues, but where everyone politely puts up with the person, all the while they give each other “a look” that they all recognize something is a little off-kilter about so-and-so.
Now combine that kind of person with someone who is also suffering from grand delusions, criminal inclinations, and methodical mania, and we start to come close to the sort of person in Jenn Ashworth’s first novel A Kind of Intimacy, that of Annie Fairhurst.
Armed with a library of self-help books, Annie has recently moved into a new neighborhood after leaving her husband and baby daughter, and almost instantly begins to obsess about her neighbor Neil, jealous of his girlfriend Lucy, while trying to make new friends with others in the neighborhood, like Sangita and Barry Choudhry, or Neil’s best mate Raymond. Soon enough Annie is listening through the walls, stealing mail, even snatching the occasional neighbor’s dress, offering enough warning signs that Annie is not reliable in telling the reader much of any truth, but rather living in her own emotional world that is impervious to reality. The novel is structured with the consequences of her previous life playing out in her new neighborhood, with each bit of the past being revealed until the final bloody end.
Told in the first person, the novel is often funny and gripping, but just as often is as disturbing as anything you might read. This juxtaposition emphasizes the uncomfortable nature we sense regarding the fine line between manners and violence: a comedy of horrors, so to speak. Ashworth portrays a convincing personality in the character of Annie, trapped in her romance novels and self help clichés, reminding me of a few of the self-deceived first-person characters Joyce Carol Oates likes to explore in her fiction. Though Annie is a bit unoriginal in her new life, where we see first hand that evil is banal, Annie is no less complex in the cliché, where her narrative voice works on several levels of self-deception that only a gifted writer could pull off. Creepy thing is, I think I may have met an Annie or two over the years.
On a bit of side note, the novel got me wondering about the nature of personality itself, reminding me of psychoanalyst Allen Whellis’ short work The Way We Are, in which he says,
We tend to assume that we know what we are, that our nature is obvious, given to us by direct observation of others and of ourselves. Just look around the world and look into your own heart and you will know the human condition. It’s not so. What it is to be a human being is not clear at all, but deeply shrouded. Because, in the evolution from animal life to human life, along with the gain in knowledge and awareness, we have gained also the ability to deceive ourselves. We arrange not to know our nature, not to see what we are up to. Our self-deceptions are so dense, piled on so thick, like layers of paint on a canvas already painted, layer after layer, laid on from school and pulpit and lectern an TV and internet., that it is all but impossible to break through, to get a clear view of what we really are. (16)
Why is Annie the way she is? How did she end up that why she did? I don’t know if it’s possible to know any more than it is possible to know why I am the way I am. But I think it’s a question worth delving into, even through that shroud, a question that suits the work of literature and story quite well. And in Ashworth’s first novel, she excels at such questions in horrifying fun.