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"Salt is a revelation."
“Finding a man buried up to his neck in mud. That’s how it’s meant to have started.” With these opening lines of his first novel, Jeremy Page takes the unsuspecting reader on an enchanting journey rich with poetry and personal mythology. Salt is tragic and absurd, bleak yet abundant, mystifying and deeply satisfying.
The bones of the story tell a ordinary family saga: generations of eccentricity, depression and madness, poverty and ignorance, personal wreckage, communal despair, and eventual redemption.
But its flesh and blood is the language used to describe a most bizarre set of circumstances. Page has created a gorgeous linguistic concoction out of the terse dialect of his characters. The insight and nuance of the narrator, a boy born mute, begins with telling his own life story of how his grandmother, the eccentric marshwoman Goose, met his grandfather, a downed German paratrooper, in the mud of the English marshland in 1945.
Salt is set in Norfolk, England, an isolated sea town whose cruel geography dictates the fortunes of its inhabitants. It’s wet, chilly, and dreary with a constantly shifting foundation that seems to be half land, half water, and all mud, and there is an undeniable acceptance among the local folk of how easily one’s spirit can fall victim to the forces of a shifting, unstable landscape.
The marshes and channels, the wrecked boats and the sinking houses, the huge skies and their ever-threatening weather all conspire to create an atmosphere of mystery and magic. It’s a place where people have names like Kipper and Pip, where tidal flooding becomes part of the family lore, and where cloud-reading leads to deep revelation.
“Their talking gave off the iron smell of strong tea, so similar to the rooty smell of the field and the tobacco odour of the bus seats; their words, their breath, the laboured progress of the bus and its dying engine, all part of the same.”
The entire tale, which has the feel of a fable throughout, is laced with poetry. Page tells the sad story of Pip, the boy who “sees” the lives of his grandparents and parents through dream, vision, and empathy with generous grace. Pip, whose coming of age rivals that of every literary hero so far, knows the sea and the marshes the way a New Yorker can speak about mean streets, the way a Westerner absorbs the mountains and deserts.
“And suddenly I’m staring into the liquid shadows of the wreck once more, and in those shadows I see two bright eyes looking back at me. The figure leans forward and I know it’s Ol’ Norse, finally revealing himself, as ancient as the sea, with weed for hair and scales for skin. His breath smells of salt as he tells me I am lost. I’ve lost my map in life. I’ve been looking at clouds all the time and they’ve got nothing to say. On land and at sea and I always wash up, shipwrecked, time after time.”
The beauty of Pip’s emergence from the despair of the marshes comes with a bittersweet finale as he is rescued by the village after a final family tragedy. Haunting, mysterious, luminous; Salt is a revelation.
Reviewer: Candelora Versace