”Jenn Ashworth’s gripping and unforgettable Cold Light is the story of a friendship unsettling in its intensity and of one terrible summer when lies, secrets, jealousy, and perversion result in tragedy more twisted and evil than one unsuspecting community can handle. A dark tale with a surreal edge, it follows two fourteen-year-old girls, best friends, as they confront the dangers of a predatory adult world, where truth is cruelly sacrificed in the name of innocence.”
Thoughts: Jenn Ashworth’s second book, Cold Light follows Lola as she reflects back on her childhood friendship with the long-dead Chloe, her tragic demise, and the illicit summer and fall that contributed to her downfall. Told in flashbacks, Lola not only shares the truth behind the terrible events, she inadvertently seeks redemption, or at least a sense of peace, ten years after the events occurred. Two parts murder mystery and one part coming-of-age story, Cold Light shows how dangerous the line between childhood and adulthood can be, especially for those not ready to cross that line.
Unfortunately, the synopsis makes Cold Light sound much better than it actually is. The story itself slow, and Lola is not the best of narrators. In fact, she is fairly pathetic. Due to either a guilty conscience or an inability to move on from that infamous summer, she hides behind her anonymity and becomes a depressing adult. What is worse is the fact that she realizes her life is in a holding pattern but is not willing to do anything about it. The flashes back in time are jarring, made worse by the mocking tone in which adult Lola tells the story of her last summer of childhood. The ensuing dark tension and angst only antagonizes a reader rather than drawing one more firmly into the story’s grasp.
Perhaps it is adult naiveté at the actions of young teens or perhaps it is a cultural difference between Americans and Britons but Emma’s, Chloe’s and Lola’s actions and freedoms appear as extremely improbable and make it so difficult for readers to remember that the story is supposed to be about fourteen-year-old girls. Everything about them, from their appearances to their actions to their thoughts and discussions, has the appearance and experience of girls much older than they truly are. While this is easily explained as girls trying desperately to act older than they are, in a hurry to grow up as kids this age always are, it does little to endear them to the adult reader. Perhaps a younger audience would better appreciate the dangers they willingly embrace, but more experienced readers can only roll their eyes and groan at the truly awful decisions made. It creates a dichotomy between the reader and the characters that is difficult to overcome.
Another difficult point to overcome is the presence of the adults. In Cold Light adults are not shown in the best of lights. They are easily lumped into three categories and none of them flattering. There are the creepy, stalker types with illicit designs towards young women. There are those that are power-hungry and too eager to manipulate details to capture the spotlight and fame. Then there are the rest – the sheep that fall prey to the machinations of the latter and blindly ignore the former while easily duped by sassy teens. Of course, all three categories of adults cannot possibly understand what it means to be a teenager and are only trying to make their lives more difficult. It is a stereotypical attitude about adults and teens that does nothing to endear the narrator to a reader.
That being said, the strong emotions Cold Light inspires is a direct testament to Ms. Ashworth’s writing talent. Her word selection and turns of phrases are pivotal to establishing the bleakness of Lola’s world. One gets the impression that the uneven pacing and disagreeable characters are a studied decision and one made to evoke strong emotions within a reader. It is a conscious choice that prevents readers from remaining ambivalent about the story.
Cold Light is a tale of two novels. On the one hand, she captures the essence of the misanthropic nature of teenagers and does so with chilling accuracy and honesty. On the other hand, the pacing of the entire novel is blocky, and the unreliability of the narrator is overdone. The story takes too many twists and turns, and the reader is fooled one too many times into thinking the truth is finally being revealed. By the end, a reader will no longer care what the truth behind Chloe’s and Carl’s deaths really is. Lola quickly loses her sympathetic appeal as she tries to defend or explain her poor choices that culminated in the tragic chain of events, while Chloe, Emma, and Carl never really earn a reader’s sympathy. The lack of likable characters should never be a deterrent to enjoying a novel, but taken in combination with a jerky plot structure and too much teen angst, it proves too much for one’s complete enjoyment of the novel.
Acknowledgments: Thank you to Mary Sasso from William Morrow for my review copy!