Review: Saltwater by Jessica Andrews

Saltwater review

Jessica Andrews’ debut novel is a lyrical exploration of youth, class and family bonds. It’s glorious. 

What’s it all about?

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

When Lucy wins a place at university, she thinks London will unlock her future. It is a city alive with pop up bars, cool girls and neon lights illuminating the Thames at night. At least this is what Lucy expects, having grown up seemingly a world away in working-class Sunderland, amid legendary family stories of Irish immigrants and boarding houses, now-defunct ice rinks and an engagement ring at a fish market.

Yet Lucy’s transition to a new life is more overwhelming than she ever expected. As she works long shifts to make ends meet and navigates chaotic parties from East London warehouses to South Kensington mansions, she still feels like an outsider among her fellow students. When things come to a head at her graduation, Lucy takes off for Ireland, seeking solace in her late grandfather’s cottage and the wild landscape that surrounds it, wondering if she can piece together who she really is.

Lyrical and boundary-breaking, Saltwater explores the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, the challenges of shifting class identity and the way that the strongest feelings of love can be the hardest to define.

What did I think?

I finished this book a while ago but it’s taken me until now to write a review. That’s because it blew me away and left me reeling for several weeks.

It was a surreal experience for me to read this book. The parallels between my life and Lucy’s were staggeringly familiar: I also grew up in Washington, the North East town where Lucy spends her early years; I was also the first person in my family and group of friends to go to university; and I also studied English. You can see why Saltwater got under my skin.

Andrews hits the nail on the head in describing Washington – its landscape, sensibilities and constraints. She sensitively explores how it can be everything to some and spur others to escape in search of more, a dichotomy offered by many other small towns I imagine.

Andrews beautifully captures the fleeting period of youth where you’re able to make choices that shape the rest of your life. Some girls can navigate their way through drunken nights out and boys to get out, while others succumb to their charms and stay. Getting out is not easy in this world, though; Lucy is taunted for leaving and must come to terms with existing in the middle of her old and new worlds, never truly finding her feet in London nor able to return to her small town life. I can attest to the fact that the otherness of an escapee is a lifelong differentiator in Washington.

Saltwater is poetic and beautifully written. It’s short sections capture the purity of Lucy’s thoughts while the longer prose explores relationships, tensions and wryly observed social interactions. The tender exploration of the mother/daughter relationship – in which Lucy describes the gradual untethering from her mother as she grows into an adult – is extremely nuanced and delicately delivered.

This book will have you revisiting your early life and the choices you made to follow your path, either inside or outside of the community you were born into. That’s not an easy thing to do so brace yourself for a personal emotional ride.

Saltwater is out now.

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