The Salt Madonna…
About the Book:
This is the story of a crime.
This is the story of a miracle.
There are two stories here.
Hannah Mulvey left her island home as a teenager. But her stubborn, defiant mother is dying, and now Hannah has returned to Chesil, taking up a teaching post at the tiny schoolhouse, doing what she can in the long days of this final year.
But though Hannah cannot pinpoint exactly when it begins, something threatens her small community. A girl disappears entirely from class. Odd reports and rumours reach her through her young charges. People mutter on street corners, the church bell tolls through the night and the island’s women gather at strange hours…And then the miracles begin.
A page-turning, thought-provoking portrayal of a remote community caught up in a collective moment of madness, of good intentions turned terribly awry. A blistering examination of truth and power, and how we might tell one from the other.
The Salt Madonna is an incredible novel in every sense of the word incredible. As the story progressed, I had to keep reminding myself that it was set in the early 1990s, not the 1690s. In this, it’s a story that drives home the very strange and dangerous ways in which religious fervour can grip people, spreading like a contagion. The setting for this story is an imaginary isolated island called Chesil, off the coast of Southern Australia. The exact location is not disclosed but the weather patterns suggested to me that this was where it likely was (I’m envisaging Victoria but only because I grew up down there near that wild coastline and there was chord of the familiar within the descriptions). Being set on an isolated island was what made the events within the story possible, I think. There is already that mentality of separation from the mainland, of being ‘on your own’; the isolation allowed for things to progress further and go on for far longer than might have been the case if that isolation was not a factor.
‘Blame is contagious. No one body can hold it. And no one ever looks to see where it is shared.’
This entire novel has a sense of foreboding that is utterly gripping and this is largely due to the narration, which I want to spend some time talking about. The author has skilfully utilised the technique of third person omniscient narration along with elements of metafiction. It’s strikingly clever and not an easy way to write, which is why I want to make a bit of a fuss over it. When it is done well, as it was in this novel, it can produce a work of fiction that is completely set apart and to me, The Salt Madonna is a brilliantly constructed novel. Here is an example:
‘But a story like this can’t be told from one set of eyes. There are too many things you have to see. This is how it will happen – I will show you all of us. They will forgive me. Of everything, they will forgive me this.
Do you recognise me yet? Let me start again.’
This narration works so well, reminding us that stories are subjective, always at the whim of the storyteller. Is any story the absolute truth? We are continually reminded to be aware that we are reading a fictional work. When taken in hand alongside Hannah’s omniscient narration, we are privy to the thoughts, actions, and feelings of every character, while still being repeatedly reminded that this is all imagined.
‘I am imagining, of course. I warned you. I don’t know any of this, except what I saw for myself.’
This is Catherine Noske’s debut novel but she is no novice writer, not by a long shot. There was a complexity to the characters that really drew me in and the plot itself was just so intricately constructed, incredible and truly beggaring belief, and yet, with a plausibility that was entirely discomfiting. So much of this story made me feel deeply sad: the under valuing of education, small towns dying, people left without an anchor in a changing economy. And then there’s the hope this story instilled: that even when madness is running rampant, there are still people who are willing to stand firm and question, such as Thomas and his mother – I admired them both so much, their sustained sensibility – imagined as it was – in the face of such absurdity. Hannah and her mother intrigued me as well. There was a politeness between the two that strained with tension. I kept expecting there to be a big reveal there, and strangely, when none came, I was accepting of it. It made me dwell on the relationships I have with members of my own family that are characterised by that very same strained politeness. And then there was black horse. I really loved that horse and his mourning touched me in a way that was deeper than if it had been replicated within a person.
I truly loved this novel and read the majority of it in day – I just couldn’t put it down. The way in which it was written, the tone and intent, the characters and the story: all of it was, to me, absolute perfection. This is a must read for fans of literary fiction and a masterclass for writers.
Thanks is extended to Pan Macmillan Australia for providing me with a copy of The Salt Madonna for review.
Amanda Curtin has an excellent guest piece on her blog in which Catherine Noske talks about The Salt Madonna. You can visit it here for a bit of story behind the story.
About the Author:
Catherine Noske is a writer and academic currently teaching at the University of Western Australia. Her research focuses on contemporary Australian place-making and creative practice. She has been awarded the A.D. Hope Prize, twice received the Elyne Mitchell Prize for Rural Women Writers, and was shortlisted for the Dorothy Hewett Award (2015). She is editor of Westerly Magazine.
The Salt Madonna
Published by Picador Australia
Released 25th February 2020