Reviews

Book review: ‘The Salt Madonna’, by Catherine Noske

Catherine Noske’s debut novel, The Salt Madonna (Picador/Pan Macmillan Australia), blends dreams with nightmares in an often startling work that in many ways makes for perfect lockdown and quarantine reading.

Catherine Noske’s debut novel, The Salt Madonna (Picador/Pan Macmillan Australia), blends dreams with nightmares in an often startling work that in many ways makes for perfect lockdown and quarantine reading. This is a story that builds slowly, drawing the reader down a surreal, twisting path, which ultimately leads us into the realm of genuine horror.

At its heart, this is a book grappling with the terrifying power of faith. Set on the fictional Australian island of Chesil, we follow the trials of the island’s inhabitants as they contend with a world beset by the challenges of climate breakdown and failing economic systems. As a fictional tool, Chesil is a prism through which Noske is able to skilfully draw together multiple competing ideas into a compelling narrative that catches you early on and refuses to let you go.

Through the – somewhat unreliable – narration of the principal protagonist, Hannah, we arrive in a world instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever encountered the ‘small town’ (or small village) mind-set that so often accompanies remote and isolated populations. At first, the quirks that accompany such a place seem fairly benign – the village gossips; the curtain-twitching of the neighbours; the contempt for “the mainland” (and the people from it); the wayward, bored-senseless youths. Yet, as the story moves on, the early sensation of reading what feels like a nostalgic, sepia-tinged dream is displaced by something far more tense and malignant.

After an incident involving one of the island’s young students, strange acts of man and nature that could be explained away by science are instead held up by the island’s devout populace as miracles. And it is from this point that the novel takes such a dark and gothic turn – something that is only amplified by the feeling of entrapment; of lack of possible escape routes. Not only are we – and the islanders – cut off from the mainland by often ferocious sea, we are trapped by far more human constructions, also; needless bureaucracy (as seen when police officers refuse to process reports of underage pregnancy), established religion, familial ties and human superstition.

It’s interesting, reading the book in an era where all the reality and facts around us point to deep rooted problems with our current socio-economic systems – the faults of corporate capitalism, the man-made destruction of the planet – to see how easy it is for people to turn away from recognising the uncomfortable truths of situations in favour of the implausible miracles. Noske is so successful at navigating the exploration of this idea, partly because of her clear devotion to her characters. Each carry their own flaws, of course, but even the most challenging ones are never simplified or made into two-dimensional, ‘evil’ characters. If anything, this serves to amplify the horror elements of this tale; because we see how easy it is for humans to take such appalling actions.

There’s certainly something of Lord of the Flies about The Salt Madonna. And some of the questions explored in each are the same; particularly how human beings react when cut off from ‘civilisation’ and presented with acute challenges. Yet there is also something Shakespearean and Tempest-like to this tale – alluded to even as police officers dismiss reports of underage pregnancy as part of a “Romeo & Juliet” romance. There must be no coincidence that Noske sets her story on an island battered by waves and storms both literal and figurative; and while there is no stand in for Caliban, there is no mistaking the heavy pressure of colonialism and its legacy the permeates the story.

But this is not just a book to be analysed. It’s a great story that makes you want to analyse it and ask yourself questions precisely because Noske does such a good job of spinning a thought-provoking and entertaining yarn. The writing is always strong and engaging, and frequently veers into the cinematic (which is perhaps why certain scenes feel so reminiscent of classic horrors like The Wicker Man). Noske’s description is beautiful and lyrical, evoking masterpieces in our mind’s eye of great statues covered in bright salt glinting in the sunlight, but also of stagnant, rotting rivers (another thing Noske does well is really make you smell Chesil; whether it’s the stench of the river, or rotting corpses of seagulls or fermenting seaweed).

In short, then, The Salt Madonna is an expertly crafted, gripping story that will capture you within its pages just as Chesil seems to capture those who land there. A fine way to while away the hours while trapped under coronavirus-imposed lockdown and quarantine (even if the general sense of being trapped might strike a little too close to home at times).

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