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Salt and Skin took me by surprise. It feels part fantasy, part magic realism, part historical fiction, part social commentary about journalism practices, grief, loss, and community. It is hard to encapsulate everything the novel holds inside it.
The novel is written by Australian author Eliza Henry-Jones and it came out mid-2022. It tells the story of an Australian family – Luda, and her two children Darcy and Min – who move to a remote Scottish island not long after their father died in car accident. Luda is a photo-journalist and her job is to document how climate change is affecting the islands and causing coastal erosion. The day they arrive on the island, Luda is taking pictures of the coastline when parts of the cliffs crumble and fall into the sea taking a small girl who was standing on the rocks to welcome the new arrivals. What unfolds is a mystical and magical telling of love, loss, finding your place in the world, and how to tell the story of those discoveries.
I loved many aspects of this novel, and there is so much to unpack. But I want to focus on the two things I loved the most – firstly, how the novel asks the question: How do we tell our stories and make sure the people in those stories are safe and respected? And secondly, how the many forms of grief and loss are explored throughout the novel.
Luda is a journalist and she seems to have an almost cut-throat nature when it comes to her reporting. She sees the story and the opportunity to tell it – and not really who is involved in the storytelling and how their lives become swept up in the drama of the story. When Luda publishes the picture of the girl falling to her death off the coastline of the remote community she moves to, she is quickly ostracized by the community. In a moment of profound grief – Luda can only seem to see the opportunity to tell a story of climate disaster with little regard for how the disaster of losing a child might affect the family involved.
For Luda, this isn’t the only time her stories and pictures have gotten her into trouble. She took a photo of her son, Darcy, when he was crying near a dry riverbed on their drought-stricken property back in Australia. That photo is shared the world over and Darcy is bullied relentlessly at school for it. He feels his mother betrayed him, and all she can see is the story.
Journalists, photographers, and writers all walk this line between telling stories and keeping the people in those stories safe. Sometimes it is impossible to do the two – and they are often forced to pick between close relationships and breaking news. Luda struggles back and forth throughout this story, and it seems she can never quite get things right. This novel made me wonder, if it is ever possible to get stories right?
This also leads to second theme of grief and loss.
When Luda apologises and reconnects with Violet, the mother of the girl who died on the cliffs, Violet tells her:
“It’s a relief, being around you. […] Everyone else knew me before. And when I’m around them I feel like I’ve got to pretend to be this person I’m just not anymore. You – you just like me the way I am now. I don’t feel like I’m letting you down just by being myself.”Salt and Skin p. 242
The idea of becoming a different person after a death is nothing new, and it is in fact a reoccurring theme throughout the book. Luda moves her family to a remote island after her husband dies and starts anew. Theo, the boy found on the shore – no one knows where he came from – also looks for a life outside the island community who only knows him as a foundling with webbed hands.
There are many layers of grief and loss throughout the novel, and Henry-Jones’ background in psychology with particular regard to grief and trauma counseling really shows throughout the story. But it isn’t done in an obvious or clinical way. She has an eye for capturing the everydayness of trauma and loss in a beautiful and bittersweet way.
There are elements of magic realism throughout the novel as well as fantastical elements around the true origins of Theo. Some people wonder if he is a selkie, a changeling, or foundling. Theo wonders himself – and seems to take on some of these mystical limitations, like never going swimming for fear he will die without his selkie skin. This makes me think of how stories become truth, truth can become myth, and myth can become real given enough time.
If you want to feel the cold brush of Scottish coastlines on your brow, and be taken away to a new and wonderful world, then Salt and Skin is a great place to start. I look forward to reading Henry-Jones’ future novels and cannot wait to recommend this book to my friends. As always, share the reading love.
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