Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Salt Letters - Christine Balint

Rated: B-

The Salt Letters: A Novel

(from Barnes & Noble)

Christine Balint's vivid first novel is the story of one woman's dramatic and agonizing journey from her home in genteel England to the then-unknown New World of Australia in 1854. Traveling in steerage aboard The Maiden Tide, Sarah is thrown into claustrophobic, filthy, and often flooded quarters with other "unmarried women," who stoically endure one horrific hardship after another: illness, infection, heat stroke, and lice, for starters. To pass the time, the women tell stories about the lives they've left behind, revealing tightly held secrets to the strangers who have become their traveling companions. But it's Sarah's memories of life at home in Shropshire, thoughts of her family and her cousin Richard, that keep her sane. She attempts to write to her mother, explaining the reasons for her departure and begging for forgiveness, but she is unable to finish the letters she begins. And she longs to see her cousin Richard, for whom she has left England for a more welcoming New World where she has heard that hard work is well rewarded and the soil is "moist and thick with nuggets of gold." Lush with sensuous prose and authentic detail, The Salt Letters is the tale of a woman whose physical and emotional limits are stretched to the breaking point -- all in the name of love. It is a compelling read by a truly "great" new writer.


I thought the prose was very fluid, very like an impressionist painting - the picture is vivid, but it's never ugly.  It definitely mirrors the thematic references to water.  Although I loved the way the words connected - more often than not, the thoughts do not connect nearly as well.  The book is full of water metaphors - but there are so many of them and there are so many insinuations that it becomes very unclear about what is actually going on, what she is remembering, and what she is imagining.  Is she pregnant?  Is Richard her half brother?  I believe the answer to these two are yes, but they are never really answered.  Is he on the ship with her?  Is he still alive?  Is he?  Those answers are much more ambiguous.  And the most vague of all - what is the meaning and importance of all the water metaphors?  The ending left me very confused with a distinct feeling of dissatisfaction to all of the questions I still had left.


I loved the prose, but I feel like the rest of the story was sacrificed to the superiority of the prose.  I like fluidity in my prose, but not in differentiating between memory and present, reality and imagination.  I feel like the author got lost in her writing - in such a way that it was to her own detriment.  I would not feel inclined to recommend this novel, but I do not regret reading it.  Despite my confusion towards the plot, the writing was exquisite.  And I know this makes me a hypocrite for not rating it even lower (I've even revised it so it's not as high as I originally rated it - a 6) since I always say plot above all things...but I am such a sucker for beautiful prose.


Historical fiction and poetry lovers

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