No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Saturday, August 22, 2009

#62: Salt -- Jeremy Page

... these storms never blow themselves out, but instead drift into some eternal vortex of the North Sea, waiting to return one day. So the storm that hit North Norfolk a thousand years ago, drowning Vikings by the boatful, could return a few hundred years later to add herring fishermen and Dutch traders to its grisly cargo. In her time she claimed she'd heard shouts in Old Norse across the marsh, heard chainmail thrashing in the breakers, had listened to the sickening crack of wood as longboats hit the banks off Blakeney Point. Danish sailors crying like babies in the mist, and she'd smelled their last meal of herring and oats as the galley-pot tipped when the boat went down. (p.41-42)

I found this a difficult novel to read -- not because it's a bad book, but because it cuts rather close to the bone. (My parents eloped to an isolated house; there were marshes; my mother, whose family were and are prone to fleeing difficult situations, was mentally ill.) The fact that I persevered should give you some idea of how much I liked the novel despite its resonances.

The writing is superb: Page captures the rich glow of the light, the bleakness of the winter landscape, the taste of samphire pulled fresh from the marsh, the thin high call of wading birds. The setting sun has made all the colours seem unnaturally saturated. The gunwale looks like lipstick has been run round it, the rust-red sail looks as bright as blood, and Elsie's hair has the colour of ripe corn. .. All along the coast, Norfolk is sinking into the North Sea with incredible softness, a landscape made entirely of lavender greys, chalk blue and dull green. (p. 241)

Salt is also firmly rooted in time: the poverty, financial and cultural, of rural life in the 1970s, the slow decay of deserted farms, the burning of trees afflicted with Dutch Elm Disease. Pip's father is entranced by the grainy TV images of the crew of Apollo 11 passing under the grey southern hemisphere of the moon (p. 89), and Pip watches a small Norfolk town become a destination for tourists.

But there's also a strong mythic element -- a very English twist flavouring tales that might've come from Greek tragedy. (Pip gets hold of a book of Greek mythology at an impressionable age.) There are oak trees, rotting elms, wrecked boats rediscovered. Storms whirl in from the North Sea, with a burden of shipwrecked sailors and other detritus. Or is it the same storm, again and again?

It's a slow and subtle book, with the seasonal rhythm of coastal life: mostly it centres on Pip, the narrator, who seems perpetually perplexed by his family -- not only his parents, but his grandmother and his uncle -- and drawn to an older girl, Elsie, who drifts in and out of the story like a storm. Pip, remember, comes from a family of bolters: his solution to it is devastating, heralded and foreshadowed but not something that could be expected. And the finale does seem hasty, but that may just be because I was reeling from the sudden rapid succession of events after the slow burn of the preceding pages.

Unsettling, to me anyway, but recommended for gorgeous light-filled prose.

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