by Jeremy Page
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 20th December 2010"Salt" tells the story of three generations living in the salt marshes of Norfolk: Goose (who rescues downed German airman Hands during World War II), her daughter "Lil' Mardler" (who marries local boy "Shrimp", brother of "Kipper"), and her mute son Pip. It's Pip who recounts the story, as he tries to unlock the secrets of his family from the tales told by his mother and grandmother, his own childhood memories, and the rumours and gossip he hears from others - including his uncle Kipper and childhood friend Elsie.
As Pip grows older and learns about his family's past and its secrets, the more he questions the versions of events that he has been told, and even his own recollections have to re-interpreted with a more adult understanding of the events that took place between his father and mother, their neighbours, his uncle and his friend.
There is a very enjoyable - and very English - sense of magical realism throughout "Salt", almost comically so in the initial stories of Goose and Hands (having been pulled from the mud by Goose, Hands fathers Lil' Mardler and then sails away at the moment of her birth, using an enormous quilt for a sail and navigating using a map won at cards from the local pub). As the story progresses - and perhaps as Pip's understanding of the world becomes more adult - these magical elements become more subtle (the descriptions of Stanley Spencer-esque depictions of Biblical stories by a local artist is particularly memorable), or manifest themselves in dreams (which are sometimes difficult to distinguish from reality).
On some level "Salt" is perhaps about how people tell stories about their own lives, and because these are stories they aren't - for whatever reason - necessarily the way things actually happened. By accident or intention the truth is distorted or lost, and can't be recovered - ultimately it seems unknowable. Just as Pip begins to distrust what he's been told (for example, we're led to believe that Hands sailed back to Germany, but later wonder if in fact he never made it), so the reader begins to distrust Pip's version of events too.
I really enjoyed reading this book. There is a richness which at times made it feel like a collection of well-told fairy stories - or maybe even a riddle - with the repeated motifs of the "rag clouds" heralding storms, the maze of waterways around the marshes, and beached and broken boats (and whales). At the same time there is also a deft lightness of touch with the characters, who in spite of the more fantastical elements of the story still feel like real people. Overall it's been a great pleasure to read a work of magical realism in a very English setting. Brilliant and highly recommended.