The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth includes towards its close a very strange recipe for a casserole featuring crumbled Ritz biscuit as a topping. Strange, or so I thought until I remembered that my Mum used to prepare a similar dish but with crushed crisps. Still, she was brought up in Formby on the Lancashire coast, while Ashworth’s novel is set – I’m fairly certain – in Chorley, one of inland Lancashire’s finest towns. So a Lancastrian dish, perhaps? But then I asked my friend Sara who was brought up in Horsham in Sussex and she claimed her Mum made something just the same. So let me get this straight: everyone, absolutely everyone in England has been pushing the culinary boat out with the reckless use of crisps, crackers, ryebreads and even, in one recorded instance, quavers as a topping for casseroles.
Is this an important fact? Yes, it is, because The Friday Gospels is a story that if you look through one end of the telescope looks utterly unbelievable but if you take the bigger picture is a perfectly realistic portrait of early 21st Century people being (un)comfortably crazy. Who would eat Ritz biscuits on a casserole? Most people, it turns out. Setting aside that this is a story specificaly about Latter Day Saints (Mormons), Ashworth offers us an interlinking narrative at just the point when a family unit is about to collapse. Each individual narrative is compellingly written – the mother, Pauline, particularly. The backstory of a group of people working against the gravitation pull of religion feels painfully accurate. And the cramped terraced houses and unkempt parks of urban England are all too familiar. There’s nothing aspirational here, but it all rings so true.
The religion of the lead characters is, of course, important. Ashworth successfully stands aside from making judgements, but a reader is certainly given some fascinating insights into how ordinarily oppressive any organisation which requires some obedience can be. Latter Day Saints are out there, working hard to keep the faith; Johovah’s Witnesses too and my Dad still sells the Morning Star to fellow communists and contributes to the Fighting Fund (and I find myself still buying the occasional copy for the comfort it brings…). Clearly there are aspects of this religion that are difficult but Ashworth’s portrait is even tempered and compassionate. Most of her characters are not either of these things. They are dangerously, passionately, understandably daft. Ashworth brilliant illustrates, I think, that everyone’s life is so very close to falling apart and that perhaps the miracle isn’t the Second Coming but that most people somehow muddle on.
Is location important? Cleary Ashworth writes from a recognisable location but she’s not heavy-handed about it and her Chorley could have been Mansfield or Redditch or Didcot or substitute any small English town. What is important is that it is a book about England now; not colour supplement England, not X-Factor England and not rioting England, but clouded-over, can’t-complain, the nights-are-drawing-in England. Irony is in short supply, but all kinds of faith abound. It is a terrific book, reflective of our times, full of the bloody motley of day to day life, uncomfortably compelling to read. I would happily have given this book five stars if that were not clearly vulgar, so assume my four stars is nearly five. And the prose is not at all taxing, although there is nothing wrong with tax.
By Jonathan Davidson, Chief Executive, Writing West Midlands
Jenn Ashworth will be at Readers’ Afternoon at Birmingham Literature Festival on Saturday 5 October.