Clare Ashton’s Pennance is set at the farthest reaches of southwest England, in the title’s eponymous village, which unfortunately turns out to be the most interesting feature of the book. We meet twenty-something Lucy in the midst of her breakdown over the death of her boyfriend, who we later find burned to death in a horrific car accident a number of months before. As with those of seemingly all postmodern protagonists, Lucy’s emotional state is fragmented and fragile, causing her to shy away from human interactions and neglect basic hygiene. She cries on the first page; she doesn’t stop crying, it seems, for the next 227.
Enter Karen: hot, recently divorced, older, and child-ridden neighbor. Karen becomes Lucy’s unlikely companion. They have nothing in common but Pennance and penance, and while both struggle with the guilt of their respective sins, we learn little of the types of people they are beyond their mutual attraction and grief.
The mood of the novel is a constant and dreary affair, matched to the English weather in consistency, and, unsurprisingly, Lucy herself. We are treated to poignant descriptions of the Devonian landscape: “The air was moist from the incessant drizzle and the clouds that crawled up the valley from the sea. The buildings looked like miserable animals today, all huddled around the village green with nothing better to do” (5). Even at her most excited and joyful, Lucy never seems to move past this plodding sort of melancholy. I very much wanted to root for Lucy’s happiness by the end, but she made it so difficult!
Also, the gayness. Lucy’s big moment of self-discovery comes at the heels of a greater realization connected to her dead boyfriend – one minute she’s straight, the next gay. Poof. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think that everybody needs to have the Grand Epiphany of Gayness. I appreciate a laissez-faire attitude when it comes to sexuality. All the same, Lucy’s lack of care for her sudden love of vagina seems unrealistic and forced.
Stylistically, Pennance leaves something to be desired: an overabundance of simple sentences, although they do convey a certain staccato firing of thoughts by a disturbed narrator, fall flat. Aside from a few shining examples of figurative language, the story is told in the most stark, pared back of terms.
Pennance isn’t all doom and gloom. Ashton makes an honest attempt at a contemporary love story, and though she is not entirely successful, for a first novel it isn’t terrible. The novel shows real promise in terms of weaving together a mystery plot. With some work on character development and style, Ashton’s next novels could really take us places.
Reading Pennance is like taking a train ride to a familiar place of which you are not particularly fond, and must visit as a formality. You don’t necessarily hope to skip the trip altogether, but you would prefer to not pay for the ticket if you can avoid it.