Jenn Ashworth’s Cold Light examines the uneasy friendships between teenaged girls living in Northern England – Chloe, Emma and Lola. Lola narrates the story from the present day, some ten years after Chloe and Chloe’s older boyfriend, Carl, are supposed to have drowned themselves in a tragic suicide pact on Valentine’s Day. Lola and Emma have been the arbiters of Chloe’s memory, with their frequent recollections of their friendship and Chloe’s relationship with Carl, to the media. Lola runs away at sixteen, transforming herself in Laura, leaving the life she used to lead behind. Only lately, and by chance, is she back in touch with Emma, with whom she has maintained a strange and fragile friendship over the last year. During groundbreaking on a Wendy house dedicated to Chloe, a body is found, and without its being identified, Lola knows that it’s the body of Daniel Wilson – a man with Down’s Syndrome who went missing the winter Chloe died. But what does Lola know about Wilson’s death and its connection to Chloe and Carl’s tragic deaths years earlier?
Cold Light places female friendships, peer pressure and bullying as its focus, and it is occasionally compelling but all too often it meanders along, over weighted with detail. The dynamics between the girls and the ways that they push each other are frightening. Chloe can be a charmer, but is equally good at bullying and manipulation. Laura is no less of a threat with her slavish devotion to Chloe. It motivates all her actions. She is determined to be number one in Chloe’s life, and that often limits her perspective and impairs her judgment. It also makes her telling of events somewhat unreliable. Emma is a new friend of Chloe’s, and she and Lola strike a tenuous balance as they constantly jockey to keep their footing with Chloe.
Ashworth successfully elucidates the girls’ lives – especially Lola’s. They are fraught with the tensions and allure of dangerous older men, the peril of a flasher – whose crimes are escalating- on the loose, and their own semi-abusive treatment of one another. Lola’s life is further complicated by the delusions of her elderly father, hostile relationship with her mother, and a harsh mixture of guilt and defiance concerning her own actions the year Chloe died. With the mystery of the newly uncovered body in the woods, all the pieces are carefully placed for a tense read as the true nature of Chloe’s death is revealed. However the pacing is off, and the meandering plot of the novel exceeds plausibility, and proves too problematic to overcome. The transitions between past and present are frequently abrupt and confusing when overlapping each other. As interesting as the girls’ stories could have been, the sprawling narrative and numerous plot lines diffused interest in the fates of all involved.