Anorexia, domestic abuse, female subjugation, religious extremism: Ash by Alys Einion contains an abundance of issues but they don’t get in the way of what is essentially a story about relationships.
Ash is the follow up to her debut novel Inshallah which traced the fateful decision of a woman to swap her native Wales for her husband’s home in Saudi Arabia. When her life is threatened and no-one believes her claims about her husband Muhammed’s abusive behaviour, Amanda flees the country with her children.
Ash finds her back in the UK, struggling to bring up the children, moving from one squalid home to another, always fearful that Muhammed will find them. The boys eventually find their own way to survive in a country and a way of life that feels alien. But Ash (Aisha) the only daughter, finds it impossible to adjust. Impossible to fit in. Impossible to relate to her mother.
Ash is a moving portrait of a troubled teenage girl and her alienation from her mother. It’s told in the voices of these two women whose experiences have given them a bleak outlook on life.
“Everything is fake, in the end,” says Ash.
All the people who say they love you, they don’t mean it. Those women, the ones my mother shacked up with, they said they loved her, they said they’d be there, and they’re gone. It’s a lie, all of it.
Amanda deals with these frequent disappointments in her life, the times when people let her down by losing herself in her painting. Ash takes a different approach, starving herself and exercising fanatically to lose weight and avoid cruel jibes at school.
The gulf between these two women is the strongest aspect of the novel. Initially I found it hard to believe that Amanda would be so engrossed in her painting she wouldn’t notice her daughter’s unhappiness. Forget to shop for groceries yes. Forget to eat, certainly. But fail to see her daughter isn’t eating and has no friends? Not really. As we learned more of Amanda’s background however, her often eccentric behaviour became easier to accept: art is her refuge, a way of forgetting the pain of the past.
Many of the chapters deal with these past events. They help provide the necessary context for the main characters’ current state of mind and explain the tension between mother and daughter. This means there is a certain degree of ‘telling’ in this novel but that wasn’t any barrier to my enjoyment of the book. I found the rewinds to Amanda’s life in Saudi Arabia and her first months back in the UK also helped fill in the background that I was lacking because I hadn’t read Inshallah. Every chapter is labelled with a colour which often reflects a key mood though this wasn’t always successful and many times I failed to see the significance of the selected colour.
Where the book worked better was in showing the pain and confusion experienced by the teenage Ash. Her response to the psychological warfare waged against her by her class mates — the willowy, slim hipped girls who call her fat — is to reduce her food intake to almost nothing. Control over her body gives her strength.
They all hate me, they despise me, but they can’t beat me because I am better than them, I can do this now and no-one can stop me. No one is stronger than I am …
If I eat this, they win, and that mens they’re right about it all, that I’m just a fat nothing.
Though Ash is a highly intelligent girl, her predicament makes her vulnerable to exploitation. I won’t go into details of that aspect of the plot because it would spoil the book for other readers, but it gives the novel a highly topical dimension and provides a cliff hanger ending. I suspect that means Alys Einion has a follow up novel in the offing.
There were times I thought the book was a little repetitive but the thrust of the narrative and the depth of the characterisation kept my interest throughout.
About this book: Ash was published in 2018 by Honno Press, independent women’s press in the UK.
About the author: Alys Einion has had a varied career. She has been a nurse and a midwife but now works as Associate Professor of Midwifery and Women’s Health at Swansea University in Wales. She gained a PhD in 2012, studying the intersection between women’s life writing, fiction and representations of sexual violence, which led to the publication of her first novel Inshallah. She also has aPhD in Creative Writing
Why I read this book: I’ve been making a conscious effort in the last couple of years to read more books from authors and publishers based in Wales. I couldn’t resist this one when I saw it on the Honno website. Aly