#9 (2020) Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

Sometimes, you pick a book up and want to buy it immediately. Sometimes, you can’t give into that urge, but the book waits in the wings, on wishlists or mental inventories. This was very much the case with Saltwater, which I remember looking at when it was published last spring. I ordered it in from the library last month and will be sad to send it back!

When Lucy wins a place at university, she thinks London will unlock her future. It is a city alive with pop up bars, cool girls and neon lights illuminating the Thames at night. At least this is what Lucy expects, having grown up seemingly a world away in working-class Sunderland, amid legendary family stories of Irish immigrants and boarding houses, now-defunct ice rinks and an engagement ring at a fish market. 

Yet Lucy’s transition to a new life is more overwhelming than she ever expected. As she works long shifts to make ends meet and navigates chaotic parties from East London warehouses to South Kensington mansions, she still feels like an outsider among her fellow students. When things come to a head at her graduation, Lucy takes off for Ireland, seeking solace in her late grandfather’s cottage and the wild landscape that surrounds it, wondering if she can piece together who she really is. 

One of things I found most enjoyable about Andrews’s novel was its form or structure. The narrative is told in a series of fragments, ranging from a couple of sentences to a page or two. These shift around temporally, moving from the present to the past, detailing Lucy’s life and that of her extended family. These help to flesh out present-day Lucy and to explain how she came to be squirrelled away in her grandfather’s isolated cottage in Donegal.

As someone who loves nature and being outdoors, I found Andrews’s descriptions of the Donegal landscape particularly enticing and rich in their detail. I wanted to get onto Airbnb and find myself a little cosy cottage in which to hide out with stacks of books and mugs of tea. These descriptions contrasted sharply with those of Lucy’s life in London, which is depicted as being fairly wild and gritty. I found the London scenes convincing but harder to relate to than her beach walks! This, for example, resonates much more than a description of a rave in some seedy London bar…

Now that I am in Ireland, I am screaming on vast beaches when there is no one else around. I am swimming in the sea, spreading my body wide in the water, feeling my limbs and lungs stretching as far as they can. I am lying in the grass in the cottage garden and watching the stars at night, letting my thoughts wander, limitless, without cutting them short, or backing them up, or squeezing them into too-small spaces. (Pg. 27)

Urban/rural preferences aside, Saltwater is beautifully crafted. Andrews meticulously weaves a narrative that unfurls bit by bit, providing more and more information and context to help you build a solid image of the characters. She deals with issues surrounding body image, the affects of alcoholism, and the process of growing up with care and sensitivity. At points I found myself transported back to my own teenage years.

The buzz of hunger wears away at hate. Skirts too tight and skin dimpled in changing room lights. We get bad haircuts and put toothpaste on our spots and we learn the opposite of love. I cannot tell if I am a pear or an apple or an hourglass or even which one I am supposed to want. You tell me it doesn’t matter but I know that it does, even to you. Boyish seems best because boyish means exempt from these things. I am not boyish. I do not want my body to cause a stir. I don’t want it to be the first thing that speaks. (Pg. 147)

As a whole, the book might be classed as a coming-of-age story, a Bildungsroman. Fans of Sally Rooney, Anna Hope, and Emma Cline would probably find much to enjoy here. It’s definitely one that I’ll eventually buy my own copy of and reread for the sheer pleasure of it.

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