Book Review: The Salt Madonna by Catherine Noske

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.


My Thoughts:

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

12 thoughts on “Book Review: The Salt Madonna by Catherine Noske

  1. I have a copy of this too, so I have only scanned your first paragraph.
    I am getting so behind with my reading because I can’t read… now that I don’t have to wear an eye shield at night I managed about 30 pages of my current book last night, but that was enough. This is driving me crazy…

    #JustAThought BTW, ignore this if you’ve already thought about it… but I’ve been thinking about families that have to lock down for about a fortnight, no school etc, and knowing as we do that teenagers, bless their independent little hearts, are not conducive to cooperating with stuff they don’t like, it seems to me that if I had teenagers I would be getting them to develop a plan to survive being stuck at home with the family. They will of course be happy to hang out online for a good bit of the time, but some advance planning *that is done by them* includes something to look forward to instead of just complaining to each other, might be a good idea. I’m well out of touch with this age group, but for example, they could plan together which movies to watch on certain dates, and run a discussion afterwards. Or make a satirical YouTube review. I’m sure that you and they could think of other things that might appeal, and that would include doing fun things offline, like have a competition to see who’s the best at beating their parents or siblings at some shared activity. My son would have enjoyed planning the holiday or the Schoolies Week he wanted to have, provided there was some realistic chance of his opinions being considered. He would also have liked a competition with his mates for making the Most Colourful Cake, and posting the grotesque results to his mates because he liked cooking. Even as a teenager, he would have enjoyed competing with his pals to model the virus with Lego. And he would have liked doing some kind of ‘manly’ project with his father, building or making something in the shed. (Not doing the gutters or anything tedious like that).
    Schools will, I assume, be providing them with work to do at home, and my guess is that this would not be a favoured activity. So some kind of leaderboard about who’s finished what first might be an incentive. It’s not going to be easy but the families that survive it best will have done more than buy toilet paper in preparation!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I really sympathise with you about not being able to read. It would drive me crazy too.
      On your other point…
      I never thought about the possibility of being locked down with the kids (and husband)!! This is my living in a remote, small town ‘that only happens in the city’ mentality. Thank you! They are all such good ideas…maybe you should write a post on it! I haven’t seen a single practical thing like this at all so far.

      Like

      • I think people are fixated on things the government can/should do, and stockpiling, but they haven’t thought about the people factor. I saw something the other day, a 20-something man who said he was supposed to be in at-home isolation so he had only been to the cinema once. And I thought, that’s it, that’s narcissism and exceptionalism there on display for everyone to see, and the point is not to be judgey about it, but to think about *in advance* what our own behaviour and that of our families might be. I don’t think it would bother me much to be at home for a fortnight or so, (though if I had tickets for a long anticipated concert or a holiday planned I’d be upset, of course). But ever since I read Jane Rawson’s The Handbook, I’ve always had an emergency pantry (see here for why: https://anzlitlovers.com/2015/08/25/the-handbook-surviving-and-living-with-climate-change-by-jane-rawson-and-james-whitmore/) so although we’d run out of fresh fruit and milk, we would be ok. Small kids might get ratty and it might be difficult, but not as difficult as teenagers who could easily flounce out if bored or angry, and of course subsequently flounce back in as well.
        I’m chatting about this on Twitter with mixed results (one tweeter thought that a Playstation was all you’d need) but what I might do is contact ABC radio and see if they might run a program about it…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Behind the Pen with Catherine Noske | Theresa Smith Writes

  3. Pingback: Review: The Salt Madonna by Catherine Noske | book'd out

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