Book Review: Saltwater, Jessica Andrews (2019)

Winner of the Portico Prize this year, Salwater tells in vignettes the story of Lucy who grew up in Sunderland, moved to London for her studies, and ended up in Ireland after the death of her grandfather, living in his cottage in county Donegal. Every vignette is written as a diary entry, as if Lucy had just jotted down some memories that constitute the beginning of her life and made her who she is, now.

As you can guess there isn’t really a plot as such in Saltwater, it is more about Lucy navigating life and her relationship with her mother. The latter is a common thread throughout the book – from the unbearable physical distance between their two bodies to the desire of being like her, and reproducing her behaviour in the only way Lucy understands. Mother-daughter relationships are always fascinating and complex, and I think it is perfectly encapsulated in this novel.

In my life in Donegal, I am learning how to take what I want. There are unfulfilled desires, curdled inside of me. I have buried things; swallowed them down and turned off the light. I must learn how to listen to my body again. I must learn how to need, how to ask, how to want.

I briefly mentioned this book when I was reading it in this article, and as I said, it moved me deeply. From the way Andrews writes about her shifting class when she arrives in London and her alcoholic dad, I’m guessing that Saltwater is highly autobiographical. It felt so real and powerful, because I have felt and lived the same things. Seeing adults behave strangely and never being sure of what you’ll find when you get home, running after someone who disappeared… these felt like scenes I have lived and Andrews put words on these feelings of utter despair and shock in such a beautiful way, it was absolutely devastating.

It was also interesting to see Lucy arrives at university in London and being faced with people who had grown up in more privileged backgrounds. Those people have grown up to be who they are and had the space to be so, but Lucy is still figuring herself out because she never had the opportunity to expand on her tastes and desires. In her teenage bedroom, she romanticised a life in London with drunk poets and musicians, but once with them she realised that it wasn’t what she needed but a teenage dream.

I was too full. I was brimming with the possibility of everything. Other people’s lives were carefully curated whereas I was a tangled knot of all the people and places I had ever wanted to be. I was distracted by every bright thing and enamoured with every person I met who promised a more solid version of myself.

She truly finds herself in the loneliness of her Irish cottage and, although I found this part of the novel a little to idealised and romantic, she can start her life from there. Everything leading up to her standing on the beach was a necessary step in her journey to be herself, and not her mother. This is what I think anyway, as this is a coming-of-age story, many things can happen in Lucy’s life after the time of the novel – possibilities are endless, and that’s why I love that kind of stories!

I absolutely loved Saltwater and cannot recommend it enough. Going through the passages I highlighted for this review made me very emotional again, there is both power and calm in this text – it’s just overwhelming. It might not be for everyone as it is told in vignettes, but the structure of the book enables Andrews to be lyrical and dive deep into her memories. I’m not sure she would have had such freedom with a more traditional form. I think it’s a very promising debut, and I’m looking forward to reading whatever Jessica Andrews writes next.

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