Well, that was disturbing. And amazing. I loved it.
Jenn Ashworth’s debut novel from 2009 is the story of Annie. As the book opens, narrator Annie is just moving into a new home, alone with her cat and eager for a fresh start. It quickly becomes evident to readers (and later to her new neighbors) that Annie has some secrets from her past. Her husband and daughter are mysteriously absent, and her stories about them change.
But Annie’s troubles don’t stay confined to her past. Shortly after moving into her new home, she becomes attached to her neighbor, Neil, and resentful of his girlfriend, Lucy. She listens to their movements, finds excuses to invite herself over, and starts engaging in what she seems to see as innocuous acts of anger, like putting garbage through their mail slot.
One of this novel’s pleasures is watching how Annie’s mind works, seeing how she interprets events to her own advantage and Lucy’s disadvantage. Sometimes, she appears merely socially awkward; she dresses oddly and serves food that’s not exactly fashionable. By this reading, Lucy appears to be a snob who looks down on Annie for being a little behind the times. But the more Annie reveals about herself, the clearer it is that Lucy’s apparent disdain stems from real unease. Annie herself is not always up-front about everything she’s done. She tells readers about her garbage “prank,” but she’s cagey about reading Neil and Lucy’s mail.
The book also skillfully shows how a sociopath might be able to win people over and gain control over a situation, if only temporarily. For much of the book, Annie’s neighbors try to write off her behavior and give her fresh starts. She gains the sympathy of Sangita, who attempts to broker peace between Lucy and Annie. Neil, too, tries a create a pleasant relationship, despite Lucy’s protests. Despite being extremely socially clumsy, Annie skates by on the fact that everyone assumes the best. Her neighbors are flawed, sure. Sangita is a gossip and Lucy is perhaps a snob, but they’re basically decent. The idea that someone could be as deceptive as Annie doesn’t cross their minds. Part of Annie’s deception, too, is self-deception. That’s one reason she’s able to hide her true nature. When she tells stories of her past, it’s easy to see how she misreads people. She mistakes politeness for friendship and sex for love.
I did feel some unease at Ashworth’s depiction of Annie’s obesity. Annie clearly has a food problem, and it would be easy to assume that Ashworth is equating being fat with being mentally ill. But that’s not necessarily true. Annie’s constant hunger is all of a piece with her character. She feeds her hunger without a thought for the consequences. It’s true of her sex life as well. In both cases, she’s not interested in pleasure. She’s trying to fill time or fill herself. It’s not clear that Annie’s even able to properly feel pleasure. It’s sad, really. Part of the genius of this book is the way Ashworth’s dive into Annie’s history shows that there are reasons to be sad for her without justifying her actions. There are reasons why Annie is the way she is, but these reasons are not excuses. Annie is bad news.
As far as the book’s payoff, I found it satisfying. One worry I had was that the book would lean too hard on a shocking reveal of Annie’s history, but Ashworth lets that story spin out gradually, not presenting it as a major twist, but just filling in details of a story whose outlines readers are likely to guess at early on. She also, interestingly, never goes past hinting at the most shocking aspect of the story. The tension in the narrative is less about what Annie has done in the past and more about what she will do next. And the book’s final moments offer at glimpse at what Annie has lost, leaving an impression of sadness instead of shock. It’s marvelously twisted in the very best way.