The fishing’s all remarkably simple: spread the nets, haul the catch onto the deck 50 times in seven days, sort the great squirming heap, gut the fish while listening to loud heavy metal and pack the fish in ice.
An empathetic writer who sees poetry in the everyday, Lamorna gives us a real sense of these men who never feel quite at home at sea or on the land.
‘It’s the salt in your veins,’ they tell her, when she asks them about their compulsion to be fishermen. They can’t cope if they don’t go to sea, but they experience ‘sailing-day blues’ on the day of leaving their families.
Most importantly, the book brings alive a section of the country that many people overlook, enjoying it as a holiday spot or a fish supplier without paying much attention to the people who live there. On the high number of Cornish suicides, Ash notes: “We find it hard to imagine death in beautiful places.” This, perhaps, is why some residents of the far southwest feel their struggles are overlooked, and may help to explain why the majority of Cornwall voted Leave in the 2016 referendum, despite being the only English county poor enough to benefit from EU emergency funding.
Ash has written a mermaid’s book, then.What else would she do? It is half memoir, half reportage. She does real justice to neither, but it barely matters. Dark, Salt, Clear, though flawed, is singular; and it is only flawed because it is so ambitious. I sense in her a once-in-a-generation novelist. She may for now be tethered to good manners, the literary canon and self-doubt, but she is very young. She may not have found what she wanted in Newlyn — which she hints, but does not say, is closeness to her mother, who was born in Cornwall and named her Lamorna. ‘I fear the fast-approaching moment,’ she writes towards the end, ‘when I will have to acknowledge that not only am I not a woman of the sea, but that I am not a woman of Cornwall either.’
Cornwall’s harbourside cottages and ragged cliffs may look picturesque, but they hide an unsettling “anger and insularity”, she argues. With graceful lyricism and endearing humility, Ash gives this rage both voice and face. Instinct will warn many of her subjects to be distrustful of an “emmet” writing about them and their turf. She isn’t one of them nor ever will be. Yet for those in Newlyn who got to know her — as Lamorna, Raymundo, my love — she more than earns her Cornish stripes.