Saltwater: A lyrical meditation on belonging driven by form rather than plot
Sceptre, hardback, 304 pages, €21
After moving from Sunderland to London to attend university, hoping to open up a future life for herself, Lucy (the narrator of Jessica Andrews' beautiful debut) finds herself navigating the chaos of the metropolis, the precarity of working life.
When, at her graduation, things come to a head, Lucy seeks solace, moving to her late grandfather's cottage in Burtonport, Co Donegal, where she slows to a new rhythm.
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Beginning with the act of birth, the moment when the narrator Lucy's body 'burst' from her mother's, Saltwater is fundamentally about connection - to history, to family and to place. "This love is heavy; salty and viscous, stinking of seaweed and yeast."
A lyrical book, where time is layered, the sections of the prose moving backwards and forwards through a life with ease. There is a real skill to this structuring, and the reader is never lost; in fact, the images and scenes ebb and flow over us, until we are slowly submerged.
Here, the landscape is different, the pace of life altered. Travelling through the Blue Stack Mountains on her way to Burtonport, Lucy tells us that "time alters as you drive into them. They are brown and reassuring but appear blue in the shifting light, dripping navy and indigo into the valleys".
But this is no hackneyed fetishisation of the West; nor is the painterly language of the prose empty. Rather, this is a carefully pieced-together exploration of the way we connect with a landscape, of how a place might help us to return to ourselves. As the narrator muses: "Sometimes, in order to move forward, you have to go to the edges."
Saltwater also gives us a wonderfully evoked northern working-class community - a community in poignant defiance - and unpicks the ways in which language, money, and cultural capital weave themselves through, and often direct, the narrative of a life. The anxiety of class, and money, is pervasive. As Lucy says: "I want to learn abundance; how to have things without fear." In part, this is a novel about learning to accept the richness of life, putting aside shame, and its darknesses.
Saltwater is also a sensitive and intelligent exploration of the ravages of austerity, regeneration, and cuts to local council budgets. It does all these things, too, without ever feeling polemic, without ever falling into direct political statement.
Rather, this is a novel of deep empathy, which trusts its reader: "The council eventually knocked the ice rink down. They got rid of the leisure centre with the slide and the wave machine to create a cultural quarter that would regenerate the town. My mother and I walked through the empty space and she started to cry.
"'That ice rink saved us,' she said.
'From what?' I asked her.
'Other things.' She looked at the ground around her feet as though that time were a stray coin she could pick up and put back in her pocket, if only she could find it."
Occasionally, the reader feels a strain in the repeated cadences of the short, numbered sections of narrative, which have a tendency to place a false feeling of accrued meaning or significance on every closing phrase or image. After a while, this can become a little grating. However, the quiet music of Andrews' prose is otherwise unobtrusive, and lilting.
A meditation on what it means to return - to an ancestral place, and (most importantly, perhaps) to the body - Saltwater is also a book about belonging. In tender detail, it traces the ways in which northernness, and working-class identity, might shift as the narrator moves between geographic locations and the strata of class. Andrews is clear and eloquent when it comes to the subtle ways we become dislocated from our home and, indeed, how our concept of 'home' alters as we grow.
The novel becomes increasingly fractured as we move across its four parts. Although these fragments of narrative, like broken shards of mirrored glass, are often placed in oblique relation to each other, glinting their light in contrary directions, the whole is luminous, and suggestive. Never does the reader feel lost, or slowed by the form of the narrative. Rather, there is a compulsive sense to build a picture, meaning that (in a way) form is the driving force here, rather than plot. As Lucy suggests, "When the present begins to fracture, there is room for the future to be written."