I for one, seduced by the promise of drama, start to feel a bit depressed by about page 70, because only one thing is clear so far: that I have misjudged the kind of read it would be.
This is certainly not the fault of the author, who has written an impressive book – just one I feel is pure literary fiction, lacking the easy payoffs of the genre cousins its cover calls to mind.
The Salt Madonna is set on the tiny fictional island of Chesil off what seems to be the South Australian coast. Its economy relies mainly on grapevines that have seen more productive days. Its young people flee to mainland schools or jobs once in their mid-teens. The local church was once a linchpin, but the priest has lost his wife to illness – and with it his motivation to lead and unify his flock.
Into this dissolving village comes Hannah, one of the teens who escaped, now an adult.
A new teaching position at the island’s only school has part enabled, part obliged her to return to care for her dying mother and try to maintain the dilapidated family property and two once-prized, now neglected horses.
Chesil is downtrodden but familiar to Hannah. Its small-town ennui and isolation seem normal enough. Until strange events begin to unfold. A teenage girl, once ordinary, disappears from class. Then women in the community begin to act strangely. And then… the miracles begin.
But events that are miracles to some feel very wrong to Hannah and some of the more sensible townsfolk. A sinister undertow eventually builds to a crisis, and a community transforms into a terrifying mob.
This debut from Noske, a writer and academic at the University of Western Australia and editor of Westerly literary magazine, is original, inventive and ambitious in scope.
There is beautiful use of symbolism and imagery; Chesil’s river, blocked at the mouth and rotting; its crumbling, defunct bridge to the mainland (and reality); its church’s almost-animate stained glass windows.
Noske achieves a detailed, convincing sense of place and atmosphere for wind-whipped, beautiful yet dying Chesil. It comes complete with problematic colonial past, a rural economy gasping for breath and bitter family feuds stretching back decades.
She also draws well the scenes of rural domesticity. Hannah’s caring for her mother’s two lonely old horses is relatively peripheral to the main action, yet their scenes are among the most real, properly awakening the reader’s senses.
But many of the characters feel somewhat opaque, their dialogue stilted.
The priest, for example, interacts with teenager Mary and her mother Ellen more than almost anyone else, yet continually refers to them as “the mother” and “the girl” instead of just saying their names. On the one hand, I see how this underlines the priest’s detachment from his community, but on the other hand, I can’t help thinking it lacks naturalism.
Even Hannah, the principal character, seems hard to relate to on an emotional level, despite her retrospective emphasis on her feelings of guilt.
Hannah is re-telling the story of the events on Chesil two decades on, impelled by this unrelieved shame about her role in them, or more accurately her passivity.
She tells it sometimes from her own point of view in the first person, sometimes from that of numerous other characters in the third person. She justifies this omniscience by frequently repeating that this is all half-remembered and half-imagined, pieced together.
But the sheer number of perspectives stops me getting to know anyone well enough to root for them.
And while all the switching, and Hannah’s emphasis on her own unreliability and subjectivity as narrator, works nicely from a thematic and atmospheric perspective, it probably contributes to my sense of alienation from these characters.
It is, however, convenient for the narrative, as not really revealing anyone’s thoughts or motivations means no stretch to explain actions that drive a plot that relies on people behaving irrationally.
Even the way Hannah starts this narrative method in the opening pages, beginning the story in one way then backtracking and telling the reader she’ll use this multi-perspective fashion instead, means my initial response to the opening pages is slight confusion, rather than immediate immersion.
By halfway through I have a reasonable grip on what’s happening, and the narrative technique does build the drive through the second half.
Noske slowly but surely pays out the mystery to the reader like a fish on the line, building her sense of menace in controlled, teasing doses.
But for all its cleverness this detachment from the characters has perhaps stopped me caring as much as I might otherwise have done about the final outcome.
This novel took Noske 10 years to write, and I find myself thinking that if she had had a bit less time to play with these structural elements the book might have been more accessible, its undeniably brilliant ideas able to shine even more strongly.
All that aside, this is a compelling novel with plenty to satisfy literary fiction lovers. It reads more like the work of a well established author than a debut, unsurprising given its long gestation and Noske’s solid literary credentials.
Its thematic and structural complexity are extremely impressive, and gives a hungry mind endless ideas to chew on. Those with some time to digest will be richly rewarded.
This review is supported by the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund and the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.
Emma Young is a WAtoday reporter focusing on environmental issues, urban planning, social justice and the arts. She has won seven WA Media Awards, including the Matt Price Award for Best Columnist.