I’ve only read one of Eliza Henry-Jones’s previous novels, Ache, and I loved it. It was beautifully written. Her latest Salt and Skin is no different. Her way with words is exquisite. Her prose stunningly eloquent. I already know I’ll have trouble writing this review, uncertain I can do her talent justice.
I must confess this book delved into a realm in which I’m less enamoured, as I usually avoid books featuring the mystical or mythical – selkies, witches, faeries, magic and the like. Of course I realise that in the past (and in the present) people are often labelled or written-off just because they’re different. Because they’re unique. Or special. The unknown is something that frightens many.
I’m not entirely sure why I’m reticent to delve into the whimsical. I suspect I’m too logic loving and pragmatic. So while I am very sure there are things in this world that cannot be explained, I also don’t necessarily want to divert my already-overthinking-mind to them. If that makes sense.
Salt and Skin
by Eliza Henry-Jones
Published by Ultimo Press
Source: Ultimo Press
Genres: Fantasy, Literary Fiction
Grief-stricken and on the verge of a breakdown, Luda Managan and her two teenaged children try to make a home for themselves on a collection of harsh and haunted Scottish islands.
Luda, a photographer, is mesmerised by the extraordinary magic of the islands and soon finds herself condemned by the local community after publishing images documenting the death of a local child.
Alienated, Luda turns her attention to the records from the 17th century island witch-hunts and the fragmented life stories of the executed women. Min, restless and strong, tries to fill up the space in their family left by her father. She soon finds comfort in the depths of the icy North Sea and in an unlikely friendship with the elderly and irreverent local ‘witch’. The only thing that beautiful and gifted Darcy cares about is getting marks high enough for entry into university – one very, very far away from his mother.
Until he meets the wild foundling, Theo.
When a tragic accident unleashes ghosts and the echoes of long-ago violence and betrayal into their lives, the Managans are forced to confront the ways that history both hinders us and sets us free.
Despite references to witches and selkies, much of this book is simply the story of a family who’ve undergone a tragedy and are trying to heal. The Managan family (Luda, Darcy and Min) left Australia for Scotland and Henry-Jones does a beautiful job at painting the bleak but beautiful island/s the family now call home. I know – as I follow her on social media – that Henry-Jones is passionate about the environment, about the land and about nature; and the perils of climate change (resulting from people collectively and individually) reverberate through this story.
Henry-Jones shares some of the islands’ mythology as the book opens:
It is said that some folk, as soon as they step onto Seannay, can see the luminous traces of scars across human skin. Every injury a person has ever sustained to their flesh – every scratch and pimple and pox and burn – illuminated by the pearly light. Someone with the sight can see the scars spun brightly across the skin of their children; strangers; enemies. Their own skin, too. In this way all skin is the same on the tidal island. And all skin on the tidal island is utterly unique. p 1
In addition to the Managan family, we meet a distant relative of theirs, the ‘all-seeing and knowing’ Cassie – who is unable to remember her age and prefers to receive her sacraments at the pub rather than the kirk (church). She recognises kindred soul in Min and the teenager and old woman develop a close connection.
We’re introduced to Ewan, a local, who’s Luda’s guide out on the water and becomes Min’s confidante and enabler as she devotes herself to cleaning up the ocean and diving… deeper and longer than any woman, or person, should be able to.
We also meet Tristan another migrant to the island, ostensibly an archeologist but obsessed with the witches of Seannay from four centuries earlier. He’s an unlikely saviour, but for a family in freefall, seems to be a mainstay the Managans encounter when they most need it.
And then there’s Theofin (Theo), reportedly a selkie who washed up on shore a decade earlier and taken in by Iris who secretly believes she called him to the island herself.
Theo is drawn to Darcy and Min, finding friendship and solace he’s never had, but it’s Darcy with whom he feels most connected.
Time passes between chapters. Sometimes it’s days. Sometimes months. Eventually several years pass. Little happens and much happens.
I struggled a little with the pacing of this for that reason. I suspect however Henry-Jones is mirroring both the tumultuous lives of those on the islands and its weather. That the chapter spacing and pacing reflects a sense of slow aching sadness and accompanying desolation; often interrupted suddenly and in devastating fashion.
Living on the islands means being in constant conversation with the wind; negotiating where it will go and will not go. p 11
I loved the way we slowly learn about the Managan’s history, though wondered if a ‘late-to-come’ reveal’ would have been allowed to simmer for so long. There’s certainly sadness in the present. Shocking events that felt out of place in the story I was reading. It jolted me out of my reverie. At the time I was annoyed. Angry even. It seemed so unnecessary, so unfair. A series of events that resulted in tragedy. Again though… I’m conscious Henry-Jones means for us (and our characters) to experience this.
The pacing changed… after. Henry-Jones starts offering snippets. Excerpts almost. Brief dips into events and times. It picked up the pace dramatically but felt almost rushed. Sporadic or even disjointed or ADD. I needed more. I wanted more.
But… despite all of that I was captivated. Enchanted. Completely undone by Henry-Jones’s beautiful writing and by the characters I’d come to love. I’m not even really sure what happened at the end but it didn’t matter. The journey was far more important than the destination.
Henry-Jones is truly a talent. Her writing is masterful. I cannot fathom how someone can weld words in a way that makes you want to sit with them. Hold them to you. Keep them as your own.
Salt and Skin by Eliza Henry-Jones was published in Australia by Ultimo Press and now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.