Imagine, for a moment, that you live in a nice quiet little middle-class street policed by the local volunteer neighbourhood watch. All the gardens are tidy and well-kept. The neighbours know one other, and nothing much ever happens here. And then imagine that a madwoman moves in next door.
Ok, now switch scenarios and imagine yourself as that madwoman, and that you’ve moved into that nice little neighbourhood. You’ve not only moved there, but you want to belong, you want to mingle, you want to make friends….
If you have an image forming in your mind, then you have arrived at the wickedly funny novel, A Kind of Intimacy by British novelist Jenn Ashworth. Politico compares the novel’s unreliable narrator, anti-heroine Annie Fairhurst to Stephen King’s Annie Wilkes from Misery. If you need any other analogies before buying this wonderful book then consider that for its savage, quirky humour, A Kind of Intimacy is likely to appeal to fans of Muriel Spark. Social identity is the fabric of this tale, and Annie’s refreshingly subversive, warped world view clashes with her tireless attempts to conform into conventional roles.
A Kind of Intimacy is told through the eyes of obese twenty-something Annie, and when the novel begins, it’s moving day. Annie loads up her cat, Mr. Tips, kicks the settee one last time, and says goodbye to her old life and nine long miserable years spent with her husband, Will. Full of optimism and determined to reinvent herself into some sort of suburbanite diva, Annie moves into her new home. When she propositions the milkman the very next day, it’s clear that Annie has serious problems, and that she’s going to make quite a splash in this small bland corner of suburbia:
"He looked closely at me, and I made sure he could see a fold of pale, damp-seeming cleavage as I modestly tucked in the gown. He gave me another wink and tucked his clipboard under his arm.
“That’s the best offer I’ve had in about two days,” he said. “But I’ve got three more streets to do before I’m due home and if the wife doesn’t get her cup of tea in bed in,” he made a show of looking at his watch, “ooh, an hour and a half’s time, my life’s not worth living.”
I nodded, and tucked my hair behind my ears, not bothering about the gown flapping open now. Nothing ventured, and all that. I’d learned not to take it personally. I’m not to everyone’s taste. A friend of mine, Boris, told me I was a minority interest, like collecting Stilton jars or learning to fold birds."
Armed with self-help books borrowed from the library, Annie soaks up helpful hints she thinks will ignite her reinvention process. Reading titles such as: Loving Yourself: Tips for the Single Woman, Controlling Your Anger, Freeing Yourself, and Weekend Fixes for a Broken Heart, Annie hordes tips on social etiquette which she keeps in a cross-referenced notebook. While she thinks all this reading will bring dramatic changes to her life, instead it leads to a series of social disasters, and any social life Annie hoped to make in the neighbourhood is undermined by her petty vandalism. After eavesdropping on her neighbours Neil and Lucy, Annie decides to hold a house warming party as an ice-breaking event. The party draws a total of 4 guests–the drunk, newly-single Raymond, Neil and Lucy, and Dr. and Mrs. Choudhry. While Annie is convinced that Raymond casts lust-filled looks her way, her attention is solidly on Neil, a man she’s sure she’s met before.
At the party, Annie serves “six bottles of wine, a cheese and pickled onion hedgehog, a bowl of twiglets and a plate of fairy cakes.” It’s an awkward event, with the Choudrys radiating the complacent self-satisfied smugness of a happily married couple while valiantly pretending everything is normal. Lucy and Annie square off over the absence of olives, and the evening ends in disaster. This major disappointment heralds a self-destructive eating binge for Annie:
“My memories of the next few days are hazy. Someone called me on the telephone about an unpaid credit card, and I remember sitting at the bottom of the stairs in my nightdress singing all the verses to ‘Found a Peanut’. In my mind’s eye I can see myself very clearly, stamping my bare feet on the carpet and conducting myself through the chorus with an unlit cigarette. I can only presume I attempted to take up smoking, a habit, I’m pleased to confirm, that didn’t stick longer than my celebrations of those few days. I made frequent trips to the corner shop for tins of condensed milk, more wine, more cat food, and managed to spend a frightening amount of money there. I also remember a brief conversation with Lucy about local by-laws regarding noise levels in residential areas between the hours of eleven at night and seven in the morning.”
As the plot develops, Annie parcels out memories from her past–a childhood coloured by a father who can’t wait to get rid of her, a sexual experience that leaves a lasting impression, and a miserable marriage to a parsimonious man who seems to select Annie for her child-bearing abilities. In spite of the fact that she’s deranged, Annie, the most admirable character in the novel is an endearing anti-heroine–a mad woman who tries to survive in an insane world. Annie’s narrative is direct, funny and also rather disarming. Her world view and peculiar social identity is laced with a quirky sense of primness which mingles with her frankly unapologetic aberrant asocial behaviour; the result is a deliriously unique literary cocktail.
By Guy Savage