A tale of family history and legend, Salt takes place on the windswept Norfolk salt marches, a low sweeping bank of sand, gravel, mud and dunes
that stretches along the Coast of East Anglia all the way to the North Sea. The novel begins at the height of the
Second World War when a reclusive young girl called Goose half-carries, half-drags a man from the shore to her cottage.
Crumpled and guilty, this "mud-man" shivers and coughs while she unhooks a tin bath in order to wash him. His name is Hands, and he's a downed German airman with the palest blue eyes she's ever seen. Hands stays for a while, helping fix Goose's ramshackle cottage, and he even fancies himself as a bit of a gambler, winning a few card tricks at the local pub.
Even as Goose becomes pregnant by him, Hands is steadily planning his escape. Using Goose's favorite quilt and a map from the local pub to navigate, he caulks and pitches a clinker boat and sails his rickety craft into the choppy water of the North Sea, which takes him away for good.
The man's last known whereabouts are bailing the boat in the middle of one of the biggest storms the coast has ever seen.
Having been abandoned by her father, little Lil' Mardler grows older, and at sixteen inhabits a landscape that is so big and flat it seems the edges slope up into the sky. She also becomes in tune
with Goose and the way her mother can strangely read the clouds, all of the flat caps and tidal clouds, and the scale clouds that seem to fall out of a "mackerel sky."
Lil remains her mother's silent partner, spell-bound by her side as Goose works fast, listening to the clouds as she hears
"these stories that steadily fill her head." But when she meets George and Kipper Langore after so many solitary years as a marsh girl, she deserts her mother, heading off for a new life with George, driving a car that he's borrowed, her crabbing line her only possession.
Buoyed along by youthful enthusiasm, George promises Lil that he'll dig up his great-uncle's farming past, comforted by his own reputation as a gamekeeper-cum-stockman on a local estate. This world, however, is a place where Lil feels totally excluded.
She receives no visitors and no phone calls, and the birth of her young son, Pip, does little to assuage the loneliness and depression that steadily
enfolds her world.
Narrated by Pip, the novel is a lovingly rendered homage to the landscape of Norfolk, where a complicated fabric of stories, lies and mythologies is passed down from each generation. Author Jeremy Page does a beautiful job of presenting the ceaseless choreography of tides, creeks, birds and salt, and the story, for the most part, is generally refreshingly vigorous.
This is undoubtedly Pip's story as he orbits his family, where time is pulled elastically all around him, layering his new world with overlapping visions on these salt marshes that stretch into the vast blackness of the Norfolk night, "the silent avenues over the dark countryside of Norfolk taking me this way and that, linking scenes and stories into which I drifted."
The problem with Salt is that there isn't much of a plot, and
much of the narrative often comes across as repetitive; consequently the tale is a bit sluggish in periods. Still, Page manages to imbue his story with a special descriptive magic as he traces Pip's journey from a boy, where he cannot speak, to his bourgeoning adolescent sexuality and his eventual attraction to Elsie, a young redheaded local girl who catches his eye, and also his heart.