Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

A review of the coming-of-age novel Saltwater by Jessica Andrews.

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Saltwater is Lucy’s coming-of-age story. She grows up in the north dreaming of music, literature, and escape. Lucy goes to university in London, thinking that she’ll find herself in the city, but her escape proves hollow. Following this, she travels to Ireland, moving through different people’s lives, always trying to find the version of herself she can be happy with.

Saltwater is a difficult novel to explain. I enjoyed reading it, but once I’d finished it I had a hard time pinning down exactly why, and exactly what I’d got out of it. The prose is beautiful, lyrical, vivid and carries moments of abstract wonder alongside concrete realism. Every world Lucy goes to—Sunderland, London, Ireland—is described with tiny colourful dreamy detail, making reading the prose a lovely experience in itself.

Despite this poetic experience, Lucy didn’t shine for me as a person; ironically, the prose that engaged me artistically didn’t grab me emotionally, and I couldn’t really see her as someone with a genuine journey. Everything was described so prettily, so aesthetically, that sometimes it was hard to view it as real—real events, real people—and instead it became a series of symbolic vignettes, where even the colour of people’s socks and the laundry detergent they used was somehow connected to Lucy’s journey to find herself.

Saltwater takes itself very seriously, and I think that was why it didn’t quite resonate with me. I like a bit of irreverence, some humour and fallacy, and it’s not that kind of book. It follows a non-linear structure, showing her childhood and university days in the past, and her present in her grandfather’s tumbledown cottage on the Irish coastline. It skilfully balances the two timelines, focusing on her parents (especially her mother), and her extended family on both sides. It reminded me a little of A Girl Is A Half-Formed Thing with the dream-like, stream of consciousness narrative, the focus on family, and external influences at war with the narrator’s internal world. Ultimately, however, I found Saltwater a bit too slick, a bit too self-aware, and a bit too knowing in its structure and symbolism.

Alice Olivia Scarlett is a freelance writer and editor. She lives in Thanet with the seagulls and parakeets.

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