Silver and Salt
Elanor Dymott
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Silver and Salt
Elanor Dymott
W.W. Norton
384 pages
April 2017
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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Initially in reading Silver and Salt, a sometimes-muddled telling of a family’s inability to emotionally connect, I was irritated by the narrator, Ruthie. I doubted her regard for her father, famous photojournalist Max Hollingbourne, and for her older sister, Vinny. I found it difficult to identify or truly sympathize with her total self-involvement, no matter how hard she tries to justify her position as chief protector of her father’s artistic legacy. In 2003, Ruthie travels to Max’s villa in Greece to spend some time with her older sister. She spends her days with Vinny and Eleni, Vinny’s loyal housekeeper, who each night walks to the local chapel to light an oil lamp in loving memory of her deceased husband. Ruthie also spies on Annie, a little girl staying with her family in the stone house next door. As Annie and her older brother, Edward, trace patterns around the grove, Ruthie half-hears an echo from the past, a voice that is perhaps the ghost of her dead father.

This is one of the few books I’ve read that steadily creeps into your pores and never seems to leave. Ruthie walks the path from the villa to the chapel, mindful of the shifting waters and the muffled calls of the cicadas. Vinny is already in bed when her sister bursts in to tell her about the child in the courtyard: “I saw a child there, standing by the fountain.” Ruthie’s sudden vision jumpstarts the memories of a summer night long ago when she ran from her father. The vision catalyzes memories of Ruthie’s childhood, of Max’s abuse of her mother, Sophie, and of a shared life with Aunt Beatrice in her tall red-brick house on Pilgrim’s Lane and later in Pennerton House, her father’s ancestral home.

Ruthie’s search for redemption opens a Pandora's box; revealing terrible lies and secrets of the past. The strong bonds of love can hold siblings together and, at the same time, destroy everything precious in a family. With echoes of Shakespearean drama and a rich cinematic narration, Dymott tunnels us back to March 1959, when young Max meets gorgeous opera star Sophie. He speaks to Sophie of his childhood and his closeness to his older sister, Beatrice; Sophie doesn’t realize that she will be forced to give up her career and play second-fiddle to her husband’s newfound celebrity. After Ruthie is born, the only solace for Sophie seems to be at Pennington, where she watches the dawn break in the bucolic Triangle Meadow as Max himself spends most of his time up in London.

Max’s misogynistic disconnect with Sophie (probably quite typical of entitled British men of this time) and his unwillingness to get involved in his daughters’ upbringing leaves it to Auntie Beatrice to pick up the slack. Arriving in Pennerton, Beatrice finds herself shouldering the burdens of assisting a mentally deteriorating Sophie: “Whatever happens you needn’t worry about your girls. You’re in love with my brother; of course, you are, but you’re also very young and beautiful.” In these early sections, one easily sees the strong resemblance between Sophie’s youngest daughter and her debonair if sometimes cruel father: the insecurities, naivete, awkwardness, and constant doubt that sends Ruthie to the shadows, along with a simple unwillingness to stand up for herself.

As her chapters move between Pennington and Greece, Dymott shows the clumsy grief of a broken family. Ironically, Ruthie continues to admire Max as he shows her and Vinny the drawings for his new villa, a “pocket paradise” where everything will be “small and quiet and beautiful.” Years later, the focus sharpens as Ruthie attempts to unearth a prized negative: The Road to Falicon, her father’s most famous photo, sold over a decade ago. In the quiet of night, the only sound through floorboards of The Lightroom, Max’s secluded bedroom, are Ruthie’s footsteps as she moves around her father’s things, desperately looking for the fifty films that were never developed. Ruthie marvels at The Lightroom and its spectacular views in almost every direction: to one side, the sea with Meropi Island perched on the water; to the other, the grove and the wild mountains beyond.

It is left up to Vinny to sort out Ruthie’s final, fatal choices: “Each time the mirror is held up, what’s begun as a hairline crack will grow a little wider.” Vinny looks for answers, trying to construct the sequence of events that led Ruthie to that night in the chapel. Vinny travels further back through the years to her and Ruthie’s childhood. We cannot help but weep for Ruthie. Was her love for her father corrupted by contempt? Was her sincerity alone sufficient to offer her full protection from him? Dymott fully understands this complicated father-daughter relationship and tries to do it justice, though she largely leaves us to thread together the complicated pieces of the Hollingbourne family puzzle.

Thought-provoking but meandering (I actually found the book hard to finish), I came away conflicted. While I can appreciate Dymott’s storytelling skills, especially her use of photography as a symbol for Ruthie’s looking-glass life, I can't honestly say that I liked or even identified with the characters. For large sections, there is little sense of urgency, and key aspects of the narrative (Ruthie’s dark relationship to Max and Vinny’s inability to see her sister’s pain) are left largely unresolved. Still, the settings, both in Pennington and Greece are gorgeous and form a striking background to Dymott’s photographic snapshot of two grown women aching to finally confront their infamous father’s demons.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Michael Leonard, 2017

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