Noske, Catherine. The Salt Madonna. Picador, 2020. RRP $32.99. 368pp. ISBN: 9781760784249
Web Editor’s Note
For any readers that aren’t aware: Catherine Noske is the editor of Westerly magazine. Given the obvious conflict of interest, it was made clear to me that I should neither solicit nor publish a review of The Salt Madonna on Westerly‘s website. However, as Jen pointed out to me when we finalised this review, times have been tough lately, and everyone should be able to benefit from a helping hand.
Besides, I can vouch for the ‘craftsmanship with language’ that Jen will discuss below. Please enjoy this review, and forgive me the indulgence.
It’s probably too short to be considered a review if I just tell it like it is when it comes to The Salt Madonna by Catherine Noske. It’s a bloody brilliant book.
Thankfully, since there’s much to be admired in this impressive debut novel, there’s also much to be said about it. The Salt Madonna is a story about religion and mania, a story about crime and punishment, a story about sin and redemption, a story about responsibility and reverence, but most significantly, it is a story about women and about place.
The latter we heard straight from the horse’s mouth during Noske’s session at Perth Festival Literature and Ideas Weekend. Although Chesil Island is fictional, it draws heavily on the rural islands and townships of Noske’s childhood, though it is important to note that that is the only autobiographical thread. To question, as we heard at the festival, whether this book is autobiographical is to underestimate the complexity of Noske’s storytelling. This is a big book that delves into important topics, issues that are pressing in contemporary societies, wherever they are located.
Place is a character itself in The Salt Madonna. Although the novel is set in rural Australia, Chesil Island could legitimately be anywhere. Noske’s craftsmanship with language means the descriptions of landscape are fluid and beautiful.
She sneaks out in the end. It makes it more exciting. The summer evening means it isn’t dark but violet with dusk, an electric sort of half-light filled with shadows. She walks to the village through the grapevines rather than along the road and comes out at the pub, its daytime greasiness transformed now by loud voices and the glowing light from the windows, a slick of yellow that spills across the cracked pavement and out onto the bitumen. (52)
For me, this is Scotland. For another reader it could be America, or Spain or Iceland. Chesil is everywhere and nowhere, the universality of Chesil is what is key to understanding why this story is so important.
The pub shown in the above passage is persistently depicted as a men’s area. Women are rarely seen in that space other than in conversation or in conflict with men. The light being a ‘slick of yellow that spills across the cracked pavement’ is evocative of something seedy, slimy, like guts spilling out from inside and defacing something natural and beautiful. This description contrasts with the beauty and openness of the ‘electric sort of half-light’, the deep blanket of the ‘violet’ dusk that Mary, the ‘she’ of that passage, exists in. The symbolism is clear; when men, symbolised by the pub, spill into the space occupied by women, that quiet, beautiful outdoors, they make a mess.
Women are central to this story. When they are absent their presence is felt. When they are silent, we are still aware of their existence; they are given voice through other characters. Father John’s wife is dead, but present still in his life. He is rendered useless without her. Even his faith can’t encourage him to live in her absence.
He looks up to the kitchen sink to see his wife leaning there, like she used to. She is frowning at him. He would make her laugh if he knew how. (128)
Hannah Mulvey is the narrator of this story. A schoolteacher, she has returned to Chesil from the mainland to look after her mother, Laura, who has cancer. We get Hannah’s voice in two ways, as the narrator in the first person, and from the view of the omniscient narrator in the third person, when she speaks and interacts with this community that she was once a part of. It is the women who decide who is part of the community on Chesil. Community is both a threat and a comfort in this novel.
‘Oh, suit yourself,’ Mrs Culliver says, throwing her hands in the air. It’s a performance of resignation […] ‘You can’t say I didn’t try,’ she says, leaving. ‘I’ve tried to make you feel welcome here. It’s not my fault if you don’t.’ (208)
Men, when they narrate bring violence, panic, disorder. Something of beauty and innocence in the eyes of the feminine changes to be dirty and criminal in the eyes of the masculine. Thomas and his realisation of how Mary became pregnant upends the revered ideal of her baby’s conception. John Granville Mulvey, Hannah’s ancestor who settled in Chesil, and his ‘diary’ (fictional but no doubt based in the truth of actual accounts of colonisation) narrates in this way, full of violence, trauma, danger.
Caught 1 this evening. Harvey has tied her with rope to a tree on the edge of the camp. She was stronger than expected, struggled hard. No clothes, no decency. Young, too. Harvey got her first. I could hear her scream. (186)
Even when the women are worshipping Mary’s pregnancy, they do not realise they are worshipping an act of violence, celebrating a wrong done to another woman. Religion blinds them, gender roles and social expectation blind them, and the desire to be part of the community blinds them to the harm they’re doing to themselves and to other women.
The Salt Madonna is complex, intriguing, and emotive, it speaks to our desires and needs for inclusion and acceptance. It speaks the truth about women and men, and the divisions that institutions and expectations have created between all genders. It is not a whodunit. It is not a rant. It offers no resolutions, but is instead pregnant with possibilities for further understanding, exploring, reconsidering.
Give yourself some time with it. Breathe with it. Think about it. Sit with it and let it sit with you. It is a story that tells much that we need to hear, and you should listen its words.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.