Saltwater is the debut novel from Jessica Andrews, it was published around 18 months ago and was the winner of the Portico Prize, which champions writing that evokes the spirit of the North of England.
The book follows the journey of working class Lucy, from her upbringing in a cash strapped home in Sunderland, her attempts to fit-in with the socially and financially advantaged in London, then to rural Ireland. However, it’s not quite that simple.
The book is made up of over 300 chapters, some of them no more than a couple of lines, most of them barely stretching to a page and half. This can lead to exhilarating reading, the only difficulty being knowing when to stop, turn the light off and go to bed. “Just one more chapter, oh that’s interesting” and the pattern repeats. Suddenly, it’s very late and getting up the next morning is more challenging than it should be.
The book though doesn’t follow anything like a linear path, nor do we have long chunks in a similar timeframe. Andrews uses a variation of the “cut-up technique” made popular by the Beat writers of the 1950’s and 60’s. Things are not quite as fractured as they were for those writers. Apparently, the pages of the book were placed on the floor, then cut into sections and juxtaposed with other times, themes, feeling to create a constantly shifting narrative.
In the hands of a less skilled writer this could have resulted in a confusing mess. Andrews though writes beautifully. Wonderful sentences and chapters rub delightfully against each other. The glorious prose brings forth wonders, as it describes the past and present, with a flowing, lyrical grace which is stunningly atmospheric.
Lucy lives a life of many challenges. The financial and emotional difficulties of her childhood and teenage years in the North, are chronicled with love despite the problematic relationships with mum, dad and brother. The escape to London and university life finds her out of step with new friends. The time in Ireland covers both the conclusion of the book and overlapping memories and images of childhood visits and emotions.
It’s a coming of age story, where the dawn of new life is often shrouded in a deep murky fog. The fog is often caused by unreliable, unworthy men. Men that Lucy sometimes finds it hard to give up on.
The book captures the overwhelming sense of desperation then comes from the need to change that runs Lucy’s life. The need to change her environment, in order to change herself. It’s brilliant on the dislocation caused by the desire to fit in to a world that Lucy doesn’t understand, her confusion is heartbreakingly portrayed. Having moved away, a return visit home makes her realise that she no longer really fits in anywhere.
Blimey, this all sound very bleak! It isn’t though, honestly. It’s often very funny on the perils of childhood, the first steps into the world of clubs and music, the vagaries of London life with no money but a head full of ideas. Sadly, ideas that tragically, appear to be out of step with those around her.
The sections in Ireland frame the remote, rugged, scruffy beauty of landscape and the people in a very tender way.
It’s a book with very definite sense of place, both geographically and emotionally. I found it to be an absolutely fantastic read, poetic, emotional, honest and funny. It speaks of a life from the margins, enticed towards something seemingly more rewarding, whilst trying to cope with being let down by those that mean most to her.