Tom Sandborn’s review of People Like Frank and Other Stories from the Edge of Normal in the Vancouver Sun
December 4, 2020
North Vancouver writer’s survival stories from the edge
Jenn Ashton crafts a fierce, delicate collection that honours people facing physical, psychological or social barriers
Jenn Ashton, author of People Like Frank, is a renaissance woman. The writer (who has published poetry, children’s books, journalism, historical research and technical manuals) is also an accomplished visual artist. She has also worked as a manager for non-profit organizations, which may be where she developed the insights into and respectful empathy for the damaged characters who inhabit her short stories.
Ashton belongs to the Writers Union of Canada, The Creative Nonfiction Collective Society, The North Shore Authors Collection, Access Copyright and The B.C. Indigenous Writers Collective.
Her quirky and evocative visual work illustrates this book. The art is oddly reminiscent of early Picasso, but it expresses a unique and nuanced sensibility, as does her short fiction.
Ashton dedicates this collection to “the many people I have known, individuals who face barriers from within and without,” and expresses her goal as a writer: “To honor your courage and resilience in these stories.” Most readers who discover this fierce, delicate and lovely collection will agree that the author has more than achieved her goal.
“People Like Frank,” the collection’s title story, is narrated by Frank’s wife. It opens with a matter of fact statement: “The new microwave has a reminder function on it,” and continues in the same quiet tone as the reader learns more and more heart-breaking detail about how Frank’s descent into dementia and rage upends their lives. The tension between sometimes menacing content and quiet, understated tone makes this one of the collection’s most powerful stories.
In this, as in many of her stories, Ashton achieves an unusual blend of dark material with delicate, quiet language. Imagine Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights done in water colours, without losing any of its searing impact.
Another standout story in this collection is the eerie “Remembering Vincent Price,” in which the protagonist revisits an unhappy past and retrieves memories of unspeakable crime she witnessed as a child. Here, too, Ashton’s quiet tone enhances rather than diminishes the narrative impact.
In “Nest,” the author evokes the consciousness of a cognitively challenged woman in a sheltered workshop, and in “Pee” she shows her protagonist, severely damaged by a stroke, heroically fighting her way from bed to bathroom. In these stories, as in all of Ashton’s fictions, the damaged character is presented in ways that underscore dignity and agency. Ashton’s use of free indirect discourse here is magisterial.