Monday, March 19, 2012

Pennance by Clare Ashton

Book:  Pennance
Author:  Clare Ashton
Publisher:  Self-Published

Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems is a smart and snappy little collection of poems by a couple of fellas named William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.  Originally published in 1798, it is generally considered to have marked the beginning of the English Romantic movement in literature.

Ironically, it is also generally considered that the end of the English Romantic movement was marked by the 1982 release of Hungry Like the Wolf by Duran Duran.

But, I digress….

Most of the poems in the 1798 edition were written by Wordsworth, with Coleridge contributing only four poems to the collection, including the narrative poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  In this ballad, a nameless narrator begins by telling the reader a ghostly, preternatural, and mysterious tale about an ancient seaman who stops a man on his way to a wedding to recite a strange and terrifying story that traverses the high seas from the Atlantic to the Pacific and all the way to the South Pole. 

The story is rife with naked Deities, scurvy, sea snakes, reanimated sailors, beautiful angles, a smelly hermit, and a dead albatross…a little something for everyone.

While the poem is known for its clever use of poetic effects such as inversion and enjambment; its rich use of alliteration, anaphora, irony, metaphor, simile, onomatopoeia, personification, and synecdoche; and its novel juxtaposition of end rhyme to internal rhyme and iambic tetrameter to iambic trimeter; it is the theme of sin and redemption––that Man is a sinful creature, but redemption awaits him if he repents his wrongdoing and performs penance––that sets the stage for the further exploration of the ideas of respect for nature and confrontation of the supernatural.

As an aside, It also sets the stage for a frisky little game of winner-takes-all Craps between the swarthy, mustachioed Death and that naked little blond hottie named Life-in-Death.

Pennance, by debut author Clare Ashton, tells the story of Lucy, a bright, talented woman struggling after the death of her partner, Jake, in fiery car crash a year earlier.  Set in the village of Pennance in Cornwall, Lucy is emotionally overwhelmed with the aftermath of the accident, and seemingly unable to move forward with her life.  She remains a virtual recluse, avoiding her nosey mother-in-law and the pity-laced stares and hushed whispers of the locals.  She survives on canned soup, refuses to light a fire to warm her home or ride in a car, and feels the ever-present spirit of Jake in their cold, dank cottage.  While on a run one day, she sees Karen, a mother of two children who is divorcing and has returned to her homestead after the death of her parents.  The two women bond almost immediately upon meeting, and Lucy slowly begins to come out of her shell.  Almost at once, she develops a warm and playful relationship with three-year-old George, but is unable to break through to his older and more sullen sister, Sophia. 

Over time, and as their relationship deepens, Karen admits to having an affair during her marriage, and Lucy admits the truth about the car accident and her feelings for Jake.  However, things start to go awry as someone breaks into Lucy’s home, leaves a ghastly voodoo doll on her doorstep, and sets fire to her home.  Is it Tom Riley, owner of the Garage that messed up the brakes on Jake’s car and whose life has been destroyed and business forced to close because of the lawsuit?  Is it Ben, Jakes brother, who is secretly in love with Lucy and jealous of her growing relationship with Karen?  Is it someone or something else with an axe to grind?  The truth changes everything for Lucy, but will she ever be able to reclaim her life and happiness?

Will she ever mop her floor, wash her dishes, or clean the toilet again?

Clare Ashton’s Pennance is a tale of sin and redemption through, appropriately enough, penance.  Written in the first person narrative, the reader is given a first-hand account of the depths of trauma generated by oppressive guilt and obsessive denial.  We are introduced to a main character who isn’t particularly likeable, and doesn’t generate much pity as a result of her internal dialogue.  Yet, at the same time, we are lead to believe that her behavior is a result of PTSD-like symptoms as a result of the accident and overwhelming sense of loss of her partner.  This creates an intense set of dueling emotions, which is apt and effective given the narrator’s state of sense and mind.  It becomes even more fitting as the narrative progresses, and we see Lucy both opening up and shutting down across a wide array of situations dealing with Karen, the children, and Ben.

One of the most challenging elements of writing in first person narrative is finding a way to add depth and voice to supporting characters.  In Pennance, Ben and George are, for the most part, fully developed characters that have effective depth and voice––this is especially impressive, given that George is a 3-year-old with plastic dinosaurs.  However, other characters, such as Karen and Sophia, seem a bit underwhelming and flat––a bit of a disappointment given their vital roles as the love interest and the powerfully petulant teenage Baby Jane. I will give due credit to Ms. Ashton, though, for creating the enduring presence of Jake through noted similarities with brother Ben and through the ebb and flow of his ghostly presence in the Cottage––there isn’t much of him in the story, but what’s there works well.

While there is not an albatross to be found, Pennance is a successful and intriguing tale of transgression and liberation, which addresses varying degrees of right and wrong, truth and lies, and good and evil––its power comes from the raw images and emotional self-flagellation, which is apropos of everything.  The book is in dire need of a good editor, but this is surprisingly true of many books being released on the market today, not just those that are self-published.  Ultimately though, Ms. Ashton gives her readers an interesting take on penance, and has written a story that starts out a bit slow, but is well worth the wait for its sweet redemption.  I’m giving this tense and gutsy little debut a 4.6 out of 6 on the Rainbow Scale.

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