I had been desperate to read this book ever since I heard of its existence. I came across Jessica Andrews in Comma Press’ The Book of Newcastle, where she wrote my favourite story in the collection, called Blood Brothers (spoiler: I cried). Andrews’ voice spoke to something deep within me, like she was writing about my own deeply personal experiences, yet there she was saying “Here! Me too!” and I didn’t feel quite as alone anymore. Saltwater did the exact same, to an even larger extent.
Saltwater follows the story of Lucy, who is from Sunderland, and details her memories of growing up and moving away to a London university, where she is thrown into the centre of the action, rather than feeling on the margins in the North East. These memories are interspersed with the present, with Lucy in Ireland looking back at her life from afar to see into her future. This is a story about class, mother-daughter relationships, and belonging - to others, and to yourself.
The form of this novel is what struck me first. Each chapter is a tiny little snippet, almost like flash fiction or poetry. Each section details a new memory or subject, past or present, and can seem quite randomised. Andrews uses this technique like a mosaic of memory, shattered pieces of glass that together make a whole. As the story continues, these small sections create connections between one another, and naturally build a picture in your mind. The form interested me so much, it must have been incredibly difficult to write, and I find it genius. Her movement between past and present mirrors the way that thoughts enter our heads – fleetingly. Andrews writes free from time restraints and linearity, yet a linear picture begins to form as you read along. This novel starts as an unsolved jigsaw; we are given the pieces, all jumbled up, and we, like Lucy, must navigate them to find the story. The more pieces we put together, the clearer the picture gets, and just as the final piece is slotted in, Lucy’s sense of self seems to be much clearer too.
I don’t know how on Earth she it did, but Andrews manages to tell the story of Lucy’s entire life up to the present in 300 pages. She captures all the little moments, as well as the defining, larger ones. Because this story is constructed through memory,I found it incredibly intimate and personal, like opening the inside of someone’s head or reading their diary. This was not a highlights reel of someone’s life, this was the good, the bad, and the ugly. The narrative voice reminded me of Dolly Alderton’s Everything I Know About Love. While I know that Saltwater isn’t a narrative non-fiction, it reads so life-like that Lucy seems to be telling her own autobiography to the reader. Through being able to draw this comparison, this shows how realistic and well-crafted this novel is.
I related to so many parts of Lucy and her life. Lucy’s experiences of being a teenager and being in school were very similar to mine. Even the minute details like the girl’s changing rooms and masking the smell of an afternoon out “with vanilla-flavoured Impulse” spray. Although I am not a millennial (the curses of being Gen Z), I found that this book spoke to me and my coming-of-age too. I think this relatable aspect is what draws people into books like this and Sally Rooney. They are writing about an experience that is still so new, that is still being figured out by the young people themselves. Novels like this help me to understand who I am by seeing others struggle with it too.
I related most to Lucy in her experience of feeling geographically 'on the margins' growing up. Northernness is an important theme in the novel, and the contrast between being on the periphery and in the centre. Lucy feels drawn to London, like all the action is happening there, while she is stuck in the North East. I have always felt this way in my small town in the North West, with the action always feeling out of reach. However, unlike Lucy, I found that my life opened up when I moved to the North East. I went to university there (Newcastle) and it opened up a whole new world for me. It's interesting how we all view places differently, and how home almost always feels like a cage, even when others see it from another perspective. One quote in the novel is that being in a new place “isn’t something more, it is something else”, and I think that encapsulates what this novel prompted me to think about. Like Lucy, I have come home after finishing uni. I think that viewing this as “something different” rather than something less than the places I could be will help me settle.I loved reading about Newcastle. Seeing the familiar sights of metro stops and road names brought the North East back into my life. I think the North is such an important place to be written about, and I feel really passionate about it. There is so much experience and richness to be explored, and I love that this novel centred so much around this. Like Lucy, I feel the north running in my veins too.
I think I could re-read this forever and never get bored. Saltwater is intimate, poetic, and touching: I wish I had written it.
I had a PAGES of my favourite quotes, but I have tried to cut down to just a few:
“I craved the speed and proximity to a centre, the sense that something was always about to happen, just out of reach." Pg 21
"I come from a line of immaculately turned-out women, experts in dusting make-up over their faces to conceal the tremors that ran through their lives." Pg 84
"Writing essays and stories took the knot out of my stomach and unspooled it across the page." Pg 132
"I sometimes fear that the primary parts of myself have been lost forever, rotting on roundabouts and moulding in cul-de-sacs." Pg 244
"Just as I was really beginning to enjoy my lectures and have faith in my ideas, I graduated." Pg 258 (relatable!)
See you next time,