Saltwater: Mothers, Working-Class Britain & The Body

I’ve finally finished my exams so it’s time for a review and a very important one at that. If you follow me on social media, you’ll be sick of hearing about this book already, but I’m going to get one (or a few) last words in about it for good measure.

Saltwater is the debut from Jessica Andrews, a writer from the North-East of England. The story follows a girl called Lucy who cannot seem to put her finger on where she belongs in the world. Although not chronologically written, the fragmented narrative delivers her transition from childhood to her teen years, and then her move to a London university and the adulthood that follows. The first thing I must note about this book is the extraordinary style with which the author writes. Everything is so purposeful, poetic and electrifying to read. As I mentioned, the story is fragmented into varying-sized chunks, which each offer a world of depth standing alone or in alignment with the rest of the text. As someone who enjoys reading and writing poetry, I could really appreciate the poetic value of her writing despite it being a prose novel. There was just something about the words and the way they fit together that made every piece string together seamlessly.

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The overarching theme which is weaved throughout the novel is the relationship between mother and daughter. I recently attended an event for this book whereby Daisy Johnson, author of the visceral Everything Under, discussed Saltwater with the author herself. Andrews noted that she wanted the mother-daughter relationship to be central to the story, and was also interested in exploring the link between erotic and familial bonds. The way this is delivered in the text is exceptional, some extracts giving multiplicity to the imaginings which must be deciphered by the reader. Here’s one example of this in action:

“Redness cracking. Fissures forming. You are falling towards us, rich and syrup-soft. Flesh roiling. Bones shifting. Tongues over bellies and fingers in wet places. Salt stains the mattress; seeps into places where hands cannot reach. Tissues twisting and saline dripping into something new. Sink into the thick of us. The peach pit slick of us.”

As I said, the writing is luminous. I thought it was quite appropriate that Dasiy Johnson was discussing this topic with Jessica Andrews, since her book Everything Under also interrogates the strained relationship between mother and daughter. Whilst these writers’ characters have a very different story to tell, they feel the same pain as a result of a shift; the transformation of maternal bonds is something we all have to navigate as we age.

Whilst I found this central theme delightful to read about and to process, the key aspect which struck a chord in me is her discussion of class, which remains the reason why I am still talking about this book incessantly. I grew up in a working-class town by the sea, in a working-class family, much like Lucy. Lucy, I should note, is almost certainly biographical, which Andrews confessed to at the event. When asked about the difficulties of navigating the line between life and fiction, she made the important point that her intention in writing a book was to give herself a voice. She wanted to feel heard, and if she neglected the fact that this story was, in fact, her own, she would be acting dishonestly.

In the novel, she writes a lot about her experiences as a working-class woman, and I think that is so significant in the current climate. Whilst we are seeing an emergence of writers from this group, there are not enough. The thing which I love most about this book is the true portrayal it delivers of working-class life in Britain. It is not a sensationalist story of hardship and hunger that many books (particularly those written by non-working-class writers) depict. It is a story of normality, and all the extraordinarily abnormal things that can occur in this particular sphere. She discusses alcoholism, patrilineal aggression, financial struggle and life in a regional town. But she also writes about fake tan, eating smiley faces, downloading music on Limewire and the simplistic joy of teenage house parties. She writes openly and honestly about what it’s like growing up outside of London and how difficult it can be to navigate the transition to city life. Many people have to experience this, including me, and it was super refreshing to see someone own their story and believe it worth writing about.

“When I was a child, there was a council estate behind our house that was evicted and demolished in order to make way for a new development of identical Wimpey show-homes for different kinds of people. The clapped-out cars and broken bicycles disappeared to make way for diggers and breeze blocks. There was a couple who refused to move and their house stood alone in the rubble, their windows boarded up and a St. George’s flag floating resolutely from their front door.

My dad took me out riding on his motorbike, flying over football fields and turning circles around the abandoned estate. I slotted onto the leather seat and wrapped my arms around him, breathing in smoke and oil laced with Midget Gems.

‘Hold on tight,’ he warned as he started the engine. ‘Whatever you do, don’t let go.’

I loved the way the wind tore my hair from my skull and it bobbed around us like dandelion fluff. We got home full of the sting of it, dirt-piles and goalposts rippling under our skin. My mother breathed through her nose as she dished up potato smiley faces and beans for tea.

‘I don’t want to know about it,’ she said, soaking her cracked hands in the kitchen sink.”

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Discussion of the body runs thick and clear throughout the book’s rhythm too. Skin, hands, skulls and stomachs- all present and growling at the forefront of the story. The narrator seems to feel things deeply and physically, and Andrews describes this with poignant importance. Every feeling is relevant to the experience she is documenting, and I loved reading every account. I felt like I too was in the book, feeling things run deep under my skin and gurgle inside my body.

Thanks for reading this review (if you made it to the end), I hope that it will convince you to read this book. I loved it because it was like someone was finally speaking about my own experience in literary fiction, which isn’t something I’ve ever really seen before. Even if you can’t relate on a personal level, it is so important that people read this story. We should try and listen to more voices that are not the same as our own, and appreciate that people’s lives, particularly writers lives, do not always follow a strict (or middle-class) pathway.

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