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.