Portico Prize Shortlist: ‘Saltwater’

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Jessica Andrews’ Saltwater, her debut novel, at first seems to fall under the guise of a typical coming-of-age narrative of a young woman struggling against her northern identity. Protagonist Lucy interweaves stories of her Irish ancestry and her childhood in the North-East, followed by her move to London for university, mapping her tumultuous relationship with her mother along the way. Overwhelmed by her attempts to understand her position in the dynamic world of London, Lucy escapes to her ancestral home of Ireland to try and scope out her true identity. 

Andrews’ poetic and fragmented style take the narrative beyond a struggle: Lucy’s journey becomes one of acceptance and a celebration of her northern identity. Lineage and roots in the North-East are central to the minute details and descriptions of Lucy’s memories. Andrews’ short chapters and the dynamic movement between periods of her life build up an almost tangible image of Lucy, prickling with nostalgia, desire, pride, and shame. Andrews does not shy away from the gritty parts of northern life in her full and honest recollections, resulting in a raw voice of a young adult appreciating her history. 

The novel takes pleasure in acknowledging the preconceptions of the grimy, bitter, earthy North-East

The novel takes pleasure in acknowledging the preconceptions of the grimy, bitter, earthy North-East, whether through childhood indulgence or teenage defiance. Lucy describes how the smells are ‘under her skin and bringing my veins and capillaries to the surface’; Andrews’ rich and lyrical language pays homage to the visceral and deep rooted pride of north-eastern identity. Paralleled with the raw, poetic descriptions of Lucy’s relationship with and dependency on her mother, Andrews explores her vital connection with her mum. The relationship underlines the whole narrative; the motif of the ocean is presented through an ebb and flow very similar to that of the mother-daughter relationship and seemingly, every movement of Lucy is mirrored through past or present movements of her mother, their bodies innately connected. Andrews appreciates this unbreakable bond and celebrates it.

Saltwater shines as Andrews crosses boundaries with her working class heroine, appreciating, amongst other issues, female desire, alcoholism and the reality of male mental health. Echoing the crudeness and raw emotion of Fleabag, oddly but brilliantly paired with a Skins-esque trip of nostalgia, Saltwater is an attempt to depict reality. Andrews attempts to break through the boundaries of the coming of age struggle; there is discomfort and conflict in the character of Lucy, in her relationship with her mother and her attempts to find a place in the world. Her words are not only relatable to young adults at university, redefining and discovering themselves, but to any person with flaws and imperfections. Saltwater may be a young novel, but its success lies in its depiction of childhood in the growing age of technology and of young adulthood in the era of the hopeless ‘millennials’. 

relatable to young adults at university, redefining and discovering themselves

Saltwater could be overlooked, it could be seen as too emotional and typical of a culture of young adults who fixate on their flaws. The lyrical style could be seen to romanticise reality, too celebratory of the uglier side of life. Andrews’ style realises that these are flaws and and yet it makes Lucy that much more human.

Lucy explains that she is rediscovering the ‘primary parts’ of herself, returning to the lost pleasure of youth, thus reconnecting with her mother, her ancestry and her home county in order to become her true self. Saltwater explores the need to distance oneself from our created identity in order to find the true, raw self. Andrews takes pride in the negative stereotypes of ‘northern roughness’, creating a setting where characters bloom in the wake of their history and identity, blossoming in the echos of the spirit of the North-East.

The Portico Prize awards £10,000 to the book that best evokes the spirit of the North of England. Palatinate is reviewing the shortlist and a winner will be announced on 23rd January 2020.

Photo: Daniel Delle Donne via Unsplash

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