Review of 'Saltwater' by Jessica Andrews

Anyone who knows me or clicks on my Her Campus profile will know that reading has been one of my solaces this lockdown. After hearing about ‘Saltwater’ from discussion online and being a sucker for a good coming of age novel, I decided that this book took high priority on my tbr list. Winner of the Portico Prize and written by author Jessica Andrews, who I had not previously encountered, ‘Saltwater’ tells the tale of Sunderland teenager Lucy and her move to university in London; a story which I was intrigued to read in light of my own experiences. Acclaimed on the front to be for fans of ‘Fleabag’ and ‘Normal People’, this novel certainly was reminiscent to me of voices such as Sally Rooney’s and Elif Batuman, yet there was a distinct quality that stood out to me about Andrews’ writing. 

While undeniably my opinion of ‘Saltwater’ may be biased because of my own move to university in London, Andrews’ novel was unlike anything I’ve read previously of its kind. Split into three parts and made up of numbered passages of writing, ‘Saltwater’ has an undeniably poetic nature that might not be for everyone. While I admit I first had reservations about this structure, I was pleasantly surprised by the way that Andrews intricately threads her story together. Linked by a key theme or merely just a few shared ideas, Andrews sews together these individual sections into a story almost like patchwork. Commented as a quality that is supposed to mirror ‘life as we experience it in memory’ (TLS), this way in which Andrews writes about our memories of different life experiences was an aspect I found to be hugely authentic. Her prose communicates the way in which certain memories arise within us sporadically, sometimes unexpectedly, triggered by something as mere as a shade of wallpaper or a sweet from our childhood. The depiction of Lucy’s relationship with her family, most centrally her mother, is another key merit of the novel. While there is minimal dialogue, both Lucy’s recounts of various interactions with her mother and her attempts to navigate her family’s history were to me a deeply moving portrait of family relationships, or more specifically, the various strains which can be placed on these. Andrews’ writing brims with emotion and viscerality, sometimes feeling almost too personal for an observing reader. Raw and unapologetic, ‘Saltwater’ doesn’t shy away from the fact that we may not be liked all the time by those we care for most, and that we may not always like our own actions. 

Lucy’s move to university within the novel is presented as one which is characterised by personal unease, as she herself states how ‘deconstructing your own self image is thrilling’. To me, the questions of identity surrounding class which arise from Lucy’s move from northern England to London was also an aspect that I had not encountered in many other novels of its kind; a portrayal that held uncomfortable truths for my own experience also. ‘Saltwater’ refuses to shy away from the fact that the university experience can be one characterised by ups and downs, as Lucy’s disorientation with her new life leads her to try and seek solace elsewhere in Ireland, a place with a weight of family history. This exploration of place within Andrews’ novel seemed to me an accurate portrayal of how being a student can often be accompanied by a feeling of disjointedness; a lingering sense that you might not quite belong in the place you’ve chosen for yourself, or fit back into the place you came from. Lucy’s clearing of her childhood home reveals this sense of unmooredness, as she describes how the changes we undergo often inspire us to feel different about familiar places from our past; portraying the act of  ‘rummaging for traces of themselves (ourselves) among torn pairs of jeans and tangled strings of fairy lights’. 

‘Saltwater’ seems to me a refreshing reinvention of the coming of age novel, one which faces the truth that the process of growing up comes with conflicting encounters with our past and previous selves. With passages that we can all relate to, whether we would prefer to or not, ‘Saltwater’ refuses to glamorise the idea of ‘coming of age’, emphasizing how its okay not to have everything figured out straight away, and more importantly, just how messy the process of figuring it all out can be.