Hello, good folk, and a Happy New Year to you all!
Now, you may be forgiven for thinking that all I do in my incredibly limited spare time is read Tom’s books. You are wrong, I’m afraid. I spent most of my Christmas break reading anything and everything I could get my hands on, including The Girl in the Marshes, a novella by T.W.M. Ashford, of Everything Ends fame.
Tom sent me a copy of The Girl in the Marshes to read a while ago, but other projects always seemed to be flying about all over the place. When I eventually came to reading the story, it was an enjoyable experience, and I was sad it was over so quickly. The story itself is under 50 pages and, to me, felt like it could have benefitted from being slightly longer, although I can see that the intention was to keep it short and incredibly ambiguous, for reasons I will come to in a minute!
The story begins by introducing us to Jess, a teenager living with her parents on the edge of marshland somewhere in Louisiana. The opening scene depicts Jess’ father returning home after being made redundant and then engaging in a confrontation with his daughter, who runs off into the marshes. The marsh, in a similar way to the landscape in Wuthering Heights or the moors in anything written by Thomas Hardy, is very much portrayed as having a character of its own. The marsh conceals many dangers, and it knows it. It’s just waiting for you to find them. Tom’s descriptive prose conjurs the illusion of a wooden walkway surrounded on all sides, enclosing the reader as much as Jess as she attempts to flee her father’s wrath.
As Jess runs on in the fading light, she discovers a dead girl floating in the water, described as sharing many of her features, or at least a passing similarity in the gloom, it’s hard to tell. Here the novella becomes incredibly instrospective, and leaves many questions open to the reader. Is the girl in the marshes really there? Did Jess drown in the marsh? Did her father find her and kill her in a blind rage? Is the Jess we think is our protagonist nothing more than a ghost or a memory roaming the marshes seeking answers to herself and her own death? Wondering about her future perhaps. Unless Tom tells us, I don’t believe we’ll ever know… and that’s kind of glorious.
I mean, it may be any or all of those things. The beauty is that we, as the readers, can interpret the written word in so many different ways. Having the autonomy to choose the way in which a story ends as you read it is something of a rarity in the fiction that I have been reading throughout the last year. Ambiguous endings are the forte of authors such as Stephen King, but I think Tom has achieved something rather excellent here. True, the story is a short one but, whilst I would have enjoyed more of it, that may well have detracted from the potential to use this book to investigate your own thoughts about yourself, and where your life is heading, using Jess’ experiences.
Having read Everything Ends, I am beginning to understand Tom’s personal style and the philosophical tone he takes in his work. The message in Everything Ends is clear, we are but fleeting specks upon the Earth and our demise is inevitable. The Girl in the Marshes, for me, shows us that there are roads which will take us in different directions, some are taken out of necessity or desperation, and some are taken through choice. All have the potential to lead us to dark places, to good places, or just on to more choices. Whichever way you turn, there will be a choice, and a way to change your life.
Despite the fact that we’ll all inevitably die anyway, that is. It may well sound bleak, but Tom’s narrative voice is a positive one. You can change things – you have that power.
Now, dear reader, go and change your life for the better. Read this book.