Jessica Andrews’ debut, Saltwater, is a coming of age novel about a young woman’s longing to leave her hometown and what she discovers beyond its borders when she finally does.
I finished reading Saltwater on a train back from Cornwall, on a Sunday evening in September. I was already feeling sadness at the end of the weekend, the ache of leaving the countryside, of leaving nature and the tides and the dark sky and its almost full moon, of returning to the city. I felt inspired by the book though, remembered the evening when I had seen Jessica Andrews and two others speak about their first novels at one of Waterstones Gower Street’s Debut Fiction showcases. So, as well as the sadness at leaving the countryside, I was simultaneously thinking of all the new literature and art an autumn in the city holds, feeling excited about that, feeling the pull of London as the train swayed eastwards towards it. Feeling torn, my mind in two places.
Saltwater is about this feeling. About feeling torn, between places, between loyalties, north and south, suburban and urban and rural. At its simplest, it is about a girl, Lucy, growing up working-class in Sunderland, longing to escape, with university in London her ticket out. With life in London not as she imagined and throwing up as many problems as it does solutions, we see her eventually retreat to Ireland in search of refuge.
But it is about many things beyond this. It is about a mother and a daughter, a daughter and her father, a sister and her brother. It is about families, how they are complicated, and wonderful, and maddening. It is about ancestry, about what came before and how it shapes us. It is about being a girl and then a woman, and the process of transitioning between the two; about the loss of innocence and being awkward in your own skin. And it is about trying to fit, trying to shape yourself to suit those around you or the city you live in. It is about love, and the lack of it, about losing yourself and then finding yourself again. It is about how London is big and bold and seductive, but also cruel and aloof and anonymous. It is about remote, wild places; how they soothe, how they cure.
Her descriptions appeal fully to all five senses, not just the visual, so that I lived and breathed Lucy as I read.
Andrews takes this diversity of themes and stitches them together skilfully, jumping between time and place, a technique I admittedly found slightly disorientating before I settled into the rhythm of it. What results is a rich patchwork of a story, vignettes from Lucy’s childhood and teenage years, segments from her parents’ and grandparents’ histories, all interwoven with extracts from her time in London and her current life in a remote, coastal part of Ireland.
Saltwater is semi-autobiographical, even though it is fiction, and Andrews has said that she does this because ‘there’s a lot more freedom in fiction…with fiction you can take an image or symbol further. You can shape things the way you want them to be’. I have heard enough female authors speak to know that women’s writing is usually assumed to be autobiographical, whilst the men are allowed rampant, unbounded imaginations, and how much that can rankle. But Andrews also argues strongly for the autobiographical, for its place in what is written down: ‘there are so many things that are real and true that need to be addressed’. Like her fictional protagonist Lucy, Andrews grew up working-class in Sunderland. She also has a deaf younger brother, and lived in London then moved to her grandfather’s empty house in Ireland after his death. But beyond that I cannot tell which bits of the story are based on truth and which are imagined. Andrews provides the reader with a world and a family history and a character’s lived experience which is so abundant with detail, so incredibly alive, that it feels like it all must have happened. Her writing is lyrical and evocative, all encompassing. Her descriptions appeal fully to all five senses, not just the visual, so that I lived and breathed Lucy as I read.
The raw, uncensored descriptions of bodies, of hers, her mother’s, of childbirth, of human contact both sought and unwanted…all of it captured brilliantly by Andrews’ poetic prose.
Her childhood, simple and innocent, paddling pools and jelly shoes, strawberry bonbons and alphabet spaghetti. Her teenage years, nights out dancing, ‘liquid in sequins with vodka-coated synapses’, but also an increasing awareness of the right and wrong way for a body to be.
Her relationship with her mother, the purity of her childish love, how this becomes more complicated with age. The realisation of the imperfections of her depressed and alcoholic father, the growing sense of responsibility to share the burden that her mother has been shouldering all these years.
The raw, uncensored descriptions of bodies, of hers, her mother’s, of childbirth, of human contact both sought and unwanted.
The promise that London holds: ‘the possibilities of all the different kinds of people I could be; the books I might read and the parties I might go to, shimmered electric above the telephone wires.’ How the reality is only partially this, how dreams can fall short. Her conflicted feelings that remain about the North: ‘I was torn between a sense of pride that I’d got out and a bruised regret that I’d given it all away’.
The solace she feels, finally, in Ireland, surrounded by the layers of her family history, the rhythm of the natural world, the proximity of the sea. Able to expand into all the open space and finally become herself.
All of it is captured brilliantly by Andrews’ poetic prose.
My one wish is that it hadn’t ended at the point in narrative time that it did. I wanted to know more, follow Lucy for a few more months, a few more years. I wanted to know what next? I wanted more of a resolution. But, like those art house European films that start and then seem to abruptly end, following a character’s life for just a snapshot of it, it works, and is almost better for not giving us a neatly packaged Hollywood ending. So, I will accept Saltwater for what it is, the beautiful, knotty, start of a woman’s life story, and hope too that this is only the start of Andrews’ story, that she goes on to give us many more novels.
Saltwater is published by Sceptre and is available to purchase online and in all good bookshops. For more information about Jessica Andrews you can visit her site or follow her on Twitter @jessicaandrews
Feature Images: Jessica Andrews by Seth Hamilton and Saltwater courtesy of Hodder & Stoughton.