Lauren C. Maltas reviews Saltwater, the debut novel from Jessica Andrews.
It would be easy to brush this debut by Jessica Andrews off as another coming of age struggle – it has the typical ambitious young woman setting out on her own and carrying all her past in her suitcase – but what is different is that the typical uncertainty of coming of age is shown to be a life-long process.
There are many disruptive events in this novel – death, broken relationships, assault, birth, alcoholism, graduation – which pull us through the book. But the real power of the novel is the attention to Lucy’s coping mechanisms and rationalisations in the face of difficulty, which reveal just how well-rounded Lucy already was. There is no sense in this book of events causing drastic changes, rather incremental shifts that are true to life. Lucy’s coming of age is more her final acceptance that things fall apart and no-one really knows how to fully cope with that.
The need for motion threads throughout Saltwater and begins with Lucy’s life of ‘constant renewal’ in London. She is seduced by its promise and potential, but comes to realise there is a disappointing lack of ‘poets and rock stars waiting for me to step into their lives’. For all the false starts she experiences there, Saltwater swerves well clear of any London-bashing. Like Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Andrews addresses where things go wrong for Lucy, but describes this more as a symptom of the modern city than the specific place itself. Unlike home, London has a ‘lack of abandoned spaces. Everywhere belongs to someone and everything costs money’. The realisation reveals Lucy’s naivety, but there is some found maturity that allows this to be a realistic working-class assessment of the wealth out of her reach, much in the echo of Pete Seeger’s Little Boxes critiquing urban sprawl and its middle-class associations.
Close connections to the past are pulled on like reins by Andrews, and for Lucy they serve as a way to navigate through the life she has made for herself. She is constantly using rural metaphors to gain understanding – tangled telephone lines become the strings of a fishing net – but often deep and disruptive observations (such as ‘we are the only two people moving at this speed at a particular point in time’) are over-complicated by the more cliched lines that follow (‘he needs adrenaline in the same way that other people need oxygen’). The wisdom that Lucy collects as she passes through this narrative is affecting, but never as transformative as she hopes. She learns, and is able to keep her child-like humour and perception for the magic in all things, including the ‘lace’ of the sea, a characteristic that closely binds her with her mother, who shares this imagination and wonders whether there might be sapphires buried beneath the local Asda.
Many readers will be drawn to this book simply because of its Northern protagonist and Northern writer, who offers a very distinctive perspective on life in the big city, and also gives real honesty and identity to places which have long been ambiguously ‘elsewhere’. Yet Andrews is able to keep the north-south divide at a comfortable distance so as not be all consuming, opting to unpick other issues that are distinctly human and transcend location. We feel safe in the hands of Andrews as she guides us through the painful moments with sensitivity and knowledge, and attention to detail both in the setting of Lucy’s own life and in the lives of her family in Sunderland and Ireland.
Lucy shares with us the grief of love – most powerfully finding out she is not at the centre of her mother’s universe when she fears she’ll be in trouble for her lager stinking t-shirt, but realises mother’s thoughts are elsewhere. Later she comes to understand that ‘there were always men between us’. What is really affecting about this novel is how Lucy navigates the gaps and distances between herself and her mother, and how she comes to understand them to the point that even ‘the man’ in Lucy’s life is not someone who keeps her away from her mother, but who allows her to understand her from different angles, and as a human being.
Saltwater captures essential elements of human struggles, and is specific in the struggles of Lucy, but not exclusive in any way. There are moments in which I would have loved to strip back some of the language, but only so that I could spend more time chewing over the moments in which humanity is captured in the most truthful light.
Saltwater is out now, published by Hodder & Stoughton, and available here.
Jessica will be discussing Saltwater at our FICTION event at Hebden Bridge Trades Club this Saturday. More info here.
Lauren is a poet and writer from Calderdale in West Yorkshire. She has written on environmental and social issues including experiences of Alzheimer’s disease and everyday loneliness. In her free time she likes to garden, and runs The Discomfort Project, which works to support fledgling student writing. You can follow her work on Twitter here.