book review: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews



SALTWATER by Jessica Andrews
FSG, January 14, 2020


“It begins with our bodies. Skin on skin. My body burst from yours. Safe together in the violet dark and yet already there are spaces beginning to open between us. I am wet and glistening like a beetroot pulsing in soil. Fasting and gulping. There are wounds in your belly and welts around your nipples, puffy and purpling.”

So begins Saltwater, a generic coming-of-age tale that flits around between the key events in the protagonist Lucy’s life, growing up in Sunderland and Donegal before moving to London for university.  With a focus on Lucy’s relationship with her mother, there are chapters interspersed throughout the narrative where Lucy narrates directly to her mother from various stages in her life, beginning with this… colorful passage describing her own birth.  (Why do authors do this.)

So quite literally from page one I wasn’t getting on with this book.  I don’t necessarily believe there’s such a thing as ‘good writing’ or ‘bad writing’ – taste is subjective.  You may read these passages and be drawn to them and that is perfectly all right, but from my perspective, Andrews’ prose was labored and contrived and overwrought and I hated every minute of it.  Here are just a few passages I highlighted that had me rolling my eyes:

“Redness cracking. Fissures forming.  You are falling towards us, rich and syrup-soft. Flesh roiling. Bones shifting. Tongues over bellies and fingers in wet places.”

“My father is passed out in a chair and I am dozing on his lap in a mushroom of white lace.”

“The sunsets are crisp and smell of cardigans.”

“He smelled of leather, superglue and love.”

“Sludge horrible delicious between my toes.”

(I sent a couple of these select quotes to a friend who asked if the book was written by a random word generator.  I thought that was so spot-on I told him I was going to steal that line for my review.)

But it wasn’t just Andrews’… questionable word choices that bothered me; it was how she felt the need to bash the reader over the head with what she considered to be the book’s salient themes:

“Bridges are in-between spaces and I was in between, too.”

[regarding how Lucy would use the Shard as a landmark to orient herself in the city] “I feel an affinity with the Shard, even though it is a symbol of the wealth and status I am so far removed from.”

Everything was just so painfully on the nose.  There already isn’t a whole lot of thematic variance amongst this sort of bildungsroman, so the need to shove these incredibly basic concepts down the reader’s throat struck me as beyond unnecessary.

Anyway, moving past the atrocious writing, another thing that grated is the cruelly stereotypical portrayal of the Irish – regarding the narrator’s grandfather’s childhood in Ireland, after establishing that he slept in his aunt’s barn, this paragraph is, quite literally, the only information we receive about that period in his life:

“Auntie Kitty rationed the hot water and made anyone who entered the house throw holy sand over their left shoulder, To Keep Away The Devil.  Her husband was in the IRA and they housed radical members of Sinn Féin in their attic.”

Poverty, religious fanaticism, and the IRA – there’s only one stereotype missing here; oh, wait:

“I have noticed that many of the young men in Donegal have shaking hands. […] I ask my mother what it is that makes them shake. ‘It’ll be the drink,’ she says, sagely.”

This wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t the extent of Andrews’ portrayal of Ireland, but there truly is nothing else there, despite Lucy spending long periods of her life in Donegal.

And therein lies the main problem: this is a book about carving out your identity in relation to the places you live, but the book itself has no sense of place.  It jumped around a lot in chronology, which in and of itself wasn’t a problem, but I would quickly lose track of whether Lucy was in Donegal or London or Sunderland, because the depictions of each felt the exact same. I’ve never read another book about place that’s so devoid of atmosphere.

Finally (sorry, I bet you thought I was done) – Lucy’s younger brother is deaf as a child, and then has a cochlear implant to restore his hearing.  I already found this to be a bit of an odd narrative choice given the dearth of deafness representation in literature; I was hoping there would later be a bit of nuance to explain this decision by the author, but instead this subplot is pretty much dropped, barring an incredibly sloppy few pages in which she describes his transition from sign language to verbal speech:

“He wanted to dance to music and to enjoy the delicate nuance of spoken language. He learned the way that putting feelings into words and out into the world could ease the pressure inside, like letting air out of a balloon.”

So… sign language isn’t ‘putting feelings into words and out into the world’?  Ok then.

I started and finished this on January 1 and I’m predicting it’s going to be my least favorite book of the year.  Watch this space in 12 months.

Thank you to Netgalley and FSG for the advanced copy provided in exchange for an honest review.  All quotes are taken from the ARC, not a finished copy, and are subject to change.

2020 Reading Goals

Let’s start off this post by revisiting my 2019 goals:

  • Read at least 80 books.  Success!  112
  • Request fewer ARCs/read more books I already own.  lol
  • Read at least two books a month from any of these categories: plays, poetry collections, short story collections, nonfiction.  I did ok at this for a while and then eventually fell off the wagon.  But I did succeed in diversifying my reading (I definitely read more nonfiction in particular than ever before) so I’m not going to dwell on the specifics of this one.
  • Read my 2019 backlist TBR.  4.5/12.  Spectacular fail.
  • Read at least 12 classics.  I actually had to go back and count just now, but no, I did not succeed, I only read 7.  That’s especially low for me so I’m not really sure what happened there.  Oh well.

Some brief personal ramblings, if you’re at all curious why my goals went so badly.  If not, definitely skip these paragraphs.  2019 was… an interesting year for me.  Less than two months into the year the company I’d been working for for 5 years went out of business (long story) and I subsequently found myself unemployed for two months, which was awful.  And I almost feel bad about how awful it was for me emotionally, because I had enough savings that I wasn’t even in a position where I had to rush out and find a job the next day, and I know so many people aren’t as fortunate.  But I’d be lying if I pretended that that didn’t hit me very hard.

In April, I found a job which in many ways was my dream job on paper (I work in editorial and foreign rights for a local indie children’s book publisher), and while I do love my job in many ways, it was… a rather rough transition for me.  It’s a very, very, very different environment from anywhere I’ve ever worked before, and it took a pretty serious toll on my mental health.  Suffice to say, for the better part of the year I was suffering from worse depression and anxiety than I have in years.  I managed to read 112 books, which, yes, is a lot!  But it’s also about 20-30 fewer than I’d been managing in previous years, and I wasn’t even reading particularly long or dense books for the most part, so that goes to show that I was just really struggling in the second half of the year.  All this to say, in 2020 I’m going to be kinder to myself with my goals, because I can’t predict how my work/life/sanity balance is going to affect my reading.  I know it seems like I have a lot of goals here, but a lot of them are pretty basic and easily achievable.

(Sorry if that was all very ‘woe is me’ – I hate and struggle with talking about my personal life publicly, but I do feel like I owe it to you guys to sort of let you know where my head is at when it naturally affects my reading and blogging quite a great deal.)

So without further ado, 2020 reading (and blogging!) goals:

  • Read at least 90 books.  … ok, I was going to go lower, but I couldn’t resist.  I’ve been gradually been increasing my Goodreads goal by 10 each year for many years and I didn’t want to break the pattern.  I know a lot of people feel very restricted by their Goodreads goal, but this is actually one of the goals I care the least about.  If I hit it, great, if I don’t, I’ll change it to a lower number.
  • Read my 2020 backlist TBR.  Again, I don’t particularly care if I succeed at this goal or not, but as of this moment in time, it’s a pile of books I’m really, really excited about.  I also purposefully picked less ‘challenging’ books than the ones I put on my 2019 list, so I think this is more achievable.
  • Read my ARCs ahead of publication date.  At this point it’s an annual tradition to put this on my list and then fail at it.  So.  Whatever.  I’ll give it a go.  The road to hell etc etc.
  • Read the Women’s Prize longlist, and no other literary prize longlists.  I’ve discovered over the years that despite how much I love following literary prizes, I cannot focus my reading around them year-round.  However, I love the Women’s Prize too much to throw in the towel with this annual tradition.  Last year I read through the longlist with a group of friends and we all had such a blast with it that I think we’re all planning on doing it again, and I cannot wait.  If you enjoy my Women’s Prize series of posts every year you can absolutely look forward to that again.
  • Participate in Reading Ireland Month (March) and Women in Translation Month (August) and no other themed reading challenges.  Again, I just can’t focus my reading around community-wide initiatives, no matter how fun or well-intentioned they are.  But despite that, these two have my heart, and I am so looking forward to participating in both.  That said, I don’t plan on reading exclusively Irish lit in March (only because of the Women’s Prize tbh – otherwise I’d love to) or only Women in Translation in August.  I don’t want to restrict myself too much.
  • Unfollow a lot of blogs.  Don’t panic!  If we regularly interact on here, I am not talking about you.  When I first discovered this community, I would follow just about everyone.  I also had a lot more free time back then to read through my WordPress Reader more thoroughly.  I still like to rely on that tool to stay caught up, but nowadays I follow like 600 accounts on here and I find myself scrolling past way more blogs than I actually click on.  This just isn’t a sustainable way for me to stay engaged with the blogs I actually want to engage with.  So I know this seems like a kind of negative resolution, but it’s not, I promise.  This will be a lot better in the long run to focus my blogging interests.  And then, the flip side of this is that once my reader is more manageable, I want to be able to seek out some more bloggers whose reading tastes overlap with mine.
  • Review books immediately after finishing them.  I can’t believe I actually have to write this down as one of my resolutions, because this is something I have never struggled with.  I’ve always written my reviews within an hour of finishing the book.  But unfortunately I’ve been so mentally and emotionally drained lately that I find myself putting it off, and then resenting the process once I do sit down to review.  This just isn’t me.  I need to get back to the basics.

What are your 2020 reading and blogging goals?  Comment and let me know!