Jenn Ashworth may have published four novels before hitting the halfway mark of her three-score-and-ten, but she doesn’t do lofty eminence.

If you check out her website, not only will you find her Twitter handle, you’ll find it under the heading ‘Jenn on the Skive’. She may be a Cambridge graduate and a university lecturer, but she also refused to go to school for four years (‘most grown-ups would not volunteer to spend five years of their life like this’). Reviews of her earlier novels, The Friday Gospels, Cold Light and A Kind of Intimacy, often remark on their humour, albeit of the ‘black’ or ‘bleak’ kind.

Ashworth’s latest novel, Fell, published this summer, is another thing altogether. Set in the Morecambe Bay resort of Grange-over-Sands, it’s a tender ghost story told by the ghosts themselves, parents who have been brought back into consciousness – and language – in the present day by the arrival of their daughter Annette at The Sycamores, the home they all shared in the 1960s:

Her voice.

Her voice is.

We’re lost for.

Well, the fact is, we have not heard her speak for a long time.

The novel intertwines two time schemes. In the present day, a middle-aged and unhappy Annette doesn’t know what to make of the ramshackle and rotting house she has inherited. The two trees from which the house takes its name are now a brooding presence, whose roots threaten to destroy it altogether. She can’t cope. Her parents watch over her, though she doesn’t know it, and may even save her life. At the end of the book, as the trees are cut down, so the parents’ spirits dissipate again, out of language, and perhaps out of the world.

We have loved her and each other incompletely and imperfectly. But we have … we have. What’s the word? The sun. Yellow. And the. The thing. That. Here are the. Birds. All of the.

We go with them.

Most of the novel is set in the 1960s. Annette’s parents, Netty and Jack, run a guest house in Grange (and, in telling the story as ghosts, observe their own past lives as well). Netty is mortally ill. One day, at the Lido, Jack meets Tim, who in the midst of an argument touches him, healing the poor eyesight which prevented him serving in the war. Tim ends up moving in at The Sycamores on the initially unspoken assumption that he will heal Netty. But this attractive new lodger brings disturbing new energies into their home. He has an agenda of his own, and his powers are not wholly under his command.

The 1960s sections contain the most overtly supernatural sequences in the novel, though you have to wait while Ashworth expertly and patiently prepares you for them. Without giving away too much, at such moments multiple worlds seem to intrude. Seawater, sand, and seaweed materialise inside one of the characters. There’s a vision of a bird-goddess in a church. And, in a haunting story-within-the-story, Jack listens to a local butcher recounting how Tim’s anger finds a shocking outlet when he is forced to heal a colleague with a life-threatening injury. You’ll never look at a rabbit quite the same way again.

I caught up with Jenn Ashworth one autumn day in Lancaster. Over a variety of sensible herbal teas, I got the chance to ask her about some of the ideas behind the novel and about how she went about writing it.  In terms of the where of the novel, Grange-over-Sands is now fallen from its 1960s heyday which suited the novel’s two timelines. The modern disrepair and decay of its Lido, where Tim and Jack first meet, is a visual symbol for this. But Ashworth was also drawn to its liminal place in the landscape. A town named for sands has no sands there now. The river changed course away from the town, and is now perhaps changing its course towards it again. Tim links the town’s shifting nature with his own when he first enters the story: ‘the place couldn’t make up its mind about itself, but Tim couldn’t ever decide what he was either, so perhaps they’d be well suited to each other’.

To get the inner world of characters in 1960s Grange, some decades before Ashworth was born, demanded different kinds of research. Tim’s generously observed description of how a suit should fit is informed by a visit to Savile Row. There were conversations with experts about, for example, cancer treatments. And, in a detail which will resonate with older readers, she read a lot of old copies of the magazine Woman’s Realm, now defunct but new in the early 60s.

Questioning just what a ‘Woman’s Realm’ could be is one of subtle highlights of the book. Ashworth explains that making the home a business is a key element. That this domestic ‘realm’ is invaded and dominated by a powerful, charismatic stranger shows the way supposedly safe domestic space is often dangerous and charged.

I was intrigued by the choice of the ghosts of Netty and Jack to tell the story. Ashworth has written elsewhere about what she calls the ‘physics’ of this; the way that each books asks for a particular set of narrative rules within which its story is told. But, on a less technical level, she was interested in exploring the cliché that ghosts suffer. Netty and Jack feel powerless to help their child in her hour of need; they look but they cannot touch. That’s an image of suffering which draws us back repeatedly to the tellers of this tale.

Our conversation’s out of time. I’ve had what every reader dreams of: a masterclass with the author of a book you’ve just finished and immediately want to re-read. I start again. It’s afternoon at Netty and Jack’s. The new lodger brings some rabbits back for tea. I shiver.