There are two main threads to Jessica Andrews’ debut novel Saltwater. One recounts the narrator Lucy’s memories of growing up in northeast England before moving to London for university. The other takes place in the present and follows Lucy’s thoughts as she resides in a small village in County Donegal, on the northwest coast of Ireland. Lucy has moved to Donegal following her grandfather’s funeral and she now lives in his old cottage. Nothing particularly eventful happens here: she goes to the local shop, the pub and the beach; she cycles, reads and cleans her cottage. Even the relationship she begins with ‘the man’ (he never gains a name) is told in as much detail and with as much emotional significance as other mundane matters. This is perhaps not so surprising, as she admits: ‘I do not want to be his. I want to keep some parts for myself. This rough thing inside of me will not let me get close.’ Instead, Lucy spends at least as much time ruminating on Donegal’s landscape and how it contrasts sharply with her previous life in London.
It is not what happens to Lucy in Donegal that is important, but what goes on inside her head. Having arrived from London, the sudden solitude (‘I have to actively seek the rest of the world out in order to remember it exists at all’, she remarks) gives her space for endless reflection. This risks becoming overly self-absorbed – sentences frequently start with the pronoun ‘I’ – but Andrews avoids this pitfall through her highly imaginative, physical language: ‘I am learning my tastes’ she writes, ‘I like sitting so close to the fire that my legs break out in a pink rash and I like bruises on the insides of my thighs and to be bitten so hard it almost draws blood. I like the sweat and oil and that day-old skin smell. I like that scalpy hair scent and seeing dirt under other people’s fingernails.’ Such detailed descriptions of precise sensations are by no means unique in Saltwater. Lucy is a generous narrator, inviting her readers to follow not only her thoughts, but join her in feeling what she physically experiences too.
Saltwater’s fragmentary narrative also prevents readers from being too hemmed into Lucy’s mind. Andrews switches frequently between past and present through brief chapters , mostly no more than a few pages and sometimes as short as a single paragraph. In contrast to her present in Donegal, Lucy’s retelling of her past is more eventful. She recounts her younger brother’s early deafness, her father’s alcoholism, holidays in Ireland, all the angst of being a teenager, and finally her student years in London. Her coming of age is not exactly extraordinary, but the intense physicality of Andrews’ language means it never becomes tedious. Her language also makes Lucy’s experiences more immediate, coming across as more genuine, which helps readers to connect with them. School lunchtime, for example, is ‘hot and greasy’, and she recounts ‘[d]ancing in dirty warehouses with sweat dripping between my breasts like syrup.’ We are not claustrophobically trapped in Lucy’s head alone, but also her body.
Lucy never names her lovers (aside from the man in Donegal there is also ‘the architect’ in London), but her familial relationships are considered more closely. Her mother features heavily, as intuited in the prologue. Here, Lucy imagines her birth, characteristically considering all the colours, smells and gasps of this highly physical process. For Andrews, the mother-daughter relationship is far more interesting and complex than any romantic one and it is Lucy’s relationship with her mother that puzzles her most. ‘I felt confused by love’, she writes, ‘the way it could simultaneously trap you and set you free. How it could bring people impossibly close and push them far away. How people who loved you could leave you when you needed them most.’
In isolation, such a passage could be mistaken for a description of the end of a romantic relationship, which certainly would not be out of place in a novel centring around a woman in her twenties. But it is precisely how it is actually about Lucy’s feelings towards her mother that makes Andrews’ debut so quietly striking. Relationships with men are mere tangents at best; even interactions with her father and brother are mediated through the lens of her mother. Lucy constantly wonders how her mother feels, such as when her mother first met her father, or when dealing with her brother’s difficult early years, or looking for her father after he has disappeared following one of his drinking sprees. Saltwater is by no means only about a daughter’s relationship with her mother: it is about growing up in the north east, being a teenage girl, the desire to escape your roots, and the disappointment of the big city. But in revealing how desperately important this relationship can be, Andrews offers something many novelists overlook.
Saltwater is published by Sceptre from 16 May