Saltwater – Jessica Andrews

This debut novel by Sunderland writer Jessica Andrews won the Portico Prize for fiction in 2020, an award explicitly about representations of The North. As an exiled Northerner, and a North -Easterner like her at that, the idea has a lot of traction for me. The North is a different country, even in these days of the crumbling Red Wall, and is generally either underrepresented or misunderstood. The other pull of the novel is that it is about a working-class woman’s experience of university education, of moving away from her Sunderland home to live and study in London, and her struggles to adapt to a very different set of people, with different assumptions, beliefs and values.

Even in 2021, literary representations of working-class life are as rare as hen’s teeth (Shuggie Bain a notable recent exception), so a new one like this is to be welcomed. What makes it even more special is that it’s so good. So very good. The novel is structured to tell the story of Lucy in three distinct parts: her upbringing in the North East, with family connections in Ireland, her experiences in London as a student, and her flight back to Ireland, undertaken as an escape when the contradictions of her two worlds become too difficult to handle. It’s a first person narrative, but unlike so many examples of that most fashionable of styles, it is expertly done. The first person voice is authentically that of the character, not of a literate and well-educated author, and it takes us to the heart of the matter. That is what it is usually intended to do, but so often it fails miserably.

The three separate story strands are intertwined, and the reader has to do a lot of work to untangle them. In the same way, there is the usual obliqueness that is de rigeur in contemporary literary fiction. (Heaven forbid that anyone should ever just tell a linear story any more. Now that would be truly shocking) Sometimes that technique is tiresome and serves only to make rather dull material (characters, relationships, settings, themes, incidents) a little bit more interesting because as a reader you are transformed into something of a detective. An absence of anything as old fashioned as a plot is replaced by the efforts of the reader to discover a story for themselves.  Very often the effort of textual sleuthing isn’t worth the effort for what is eventually uncovered, but here, nothing could be further from the truth. The melange of techniques works beautifully, and embellishes the story, makes it more vivid and meaningful. There’s a poetic sensibility at work in Andrews’ exquisite prose which is by turns spare, rich and luminous. It gives the material, clearly rooted in autobiography, a sparkle such that at times it sings off the page. The technique of intertwining the stories is interesting as well, with a little touch of Kerouac in it. Apparently, Andrews wrote three entirely separate stories, printed them off and then cut them up and spread them around the floor of her house before experimenting with the sequence. Who needs a word processor?

The end result is a debut novel that is a shimmering triumph. Working class alienation via education is an old theme of the post war years, but here it is transformed into a thing of beauty. Andrews is clearly someone we will be hearing more of in the future. Personally, I can’t wait for her next one.

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