Book review: The Friday Gospels by Jenn Ashworth

The distinctive angel-topped Mormon temple at Chorley forms the towering backdrop – both literally and psychologically – to Preston author Jenn Ashworth’s provocative and darkly compelling new novel.

By Pam Norfolk
Monday, 18th February 2013, 9:00 am

Ashworth, 30, a former prison librarian who lectures in creative writing at Lancaster University, has become something of a literary sensation since her first novel, A Kind of Intimacy, was published in 2009 and won a Betty Trask Award.

Her second book, Cold Light, earned her the accolade of one of the Best New British Novelists chosen by BBC Two’s The Culture Show, and now The Friday Gospels, inspired by her own Mormon upbringing, is garnering fresh praise from the critics.

And it’s easy to see why... threaded through with earthy black humour, written with her trademark straightforwardness and startling intimacy, this story of a Lancashire Mormon family’s day of destiny is a real show-stopper.

Its essence is bleak, its truths are shocking and violence is never far from the surface, but Ashworth delivers some blistering insights based on her own experiences with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Faith and family are the backbone of The Friday Gospels; using the prism of a complex web of relationships we witness human folly, the disastrous fall-out from communication breakdowns and the redemption that comes not necessarily through religion but from insoluble bonds of love and understanding.

The plot unfolds through the alternating narratives of the five members of the Leeke family from Chorley. It’s a Friday but no ordinary Friday. Tonight they will be welcoming back youngest son Gary from his two-year Mormon mission in Utah.

His wheelchair-bound mother Pauline wants his homecoming to be perfect but unfortunately no one else seems to be following the script and, in turn, we discover why.

Fourteen-year-old Jeannie, who attends a two-hour seminary on the moral value of chastity before school starts, is wrestling with a disastrous secret which threatens to blow apart both her family and the teachings of the Church.

Her eldest brother Julian, 26, an abrasive, troubled loner who harbours simmering resentments, is plotting a dramatic exit. He has learned that people can put ideas into your head but ‘once you have learned what they are up to, you can gain total control of what gets in.’

Their father, Martin, who works at the local mail sorting office, is also dreaming of escaping ... from his agoraphobic wife and her over-spending which has left them heavily in debt. Obsessed with a woman he has met while walking his dog in Astley Park, Martin used to think he was ‘sufficient to myself’ – but not any more.

Even the family’s ‘golden boy’ Gary is far from happy. Thousands of feet above the Earth, he is trying desperately to ‘convert’ a fellow passenger on his flight home and dreading his return.

Finally there’s Pauline, who believes she has ‘been touched by the finger of God’ and hopes that Gary’s missionary work will raise her standing with the Church. She also desperately needs a doctor’s help with a devastating medical problem but won’t ask for it.

As the day progresses, a meltdown looms, and the outcome is as unexpected as it is shocking.

Funny, fascinating and affecting, The Friday Gospels is a tour-de-force. Ashworth handles serious themes with a light touch but supreme confidence, confirming her growing reputation as one of Britain’s best contemporary authors.

(Sceptre, hardback, £17.99)