Jessica Andrews’ Saltwater is written by a working-class northern girl, for working-class northern girls, specifically those with Irish heritage. It is refreshing to see such a nuanced novel be so well received critically; it was recently shortlisted for the Portico Prize, and was publicly praised by Game of Thrones actress Emilia Clarke as a ‘must read’ and one of the best books she has read in ‘years’, solidifying the novel as an Instagram darling.
Saltwater has different narrative threads that run perpendicular to one another: protagonist Lucy in the present as she retreats to her late Grandfather’s cottage in Donegal; Lucy as she grows up in Sunderland and moves to London for University, and an occasionally intercepting voice that abstractly articulates Lucy’s visceral emotions, particularly those to do with her mother. Through these voices we learn about the Irish diaspora, class, gender, family relations and how these factors contribute to the disenfranchisement of young working-class, northern women from the London liberal elite when they attempt to navigate it.
It seems almost predictable to say that the novel is about “identity” (which novel isn’t?), but Saltwater explores identities specific to times and places, namely the Irish in northern England and vice versa, young adulthood in the early 2000s and University in more recent times. Andrews’ representations of the characters that fill Lucy’s life are raw and honest, sometimes uncomfortably so. The discomfort that runs throughout Saltwater, however, is entirely intentional – this is not a romanticised view of working-class life, this is life as it really is. The fragmentary, time-hopping nature of the narration builds a wonderfully distinct impression of the everyday. Through Lucy we are invited to think, feel, touch and see the physical and emotional fallout of an alcoholic father, a brother born deaf, an occasionally violent grandfather and a mother struggling to cope. It is a testament to Andrews’ almost ethereal yet insightful writing that this impression is so distinct; it is a novel that stays with you for quite some time. It is an undeniably brilliant book, and one that I hope will remain in the public conscious when we talk about the woman experience in literature because of its nuances and specificity, and not despite it.
Jessica White is a PhD student at the University of Liverpool, researching materials and textiles in Victorian literature. She is the found and editor of Another North, a platform for writing from and about the north of England. Her short book reviews can be found on her Instagram @lunchpoems.