A hybrid of nature journal and motherhood memoir sounds cynically on-trend, but Salt never feels anything less than wholly authentic. True, its brief chapters sometimes read like the ramblings of a writer in search of her story, hopping from topic to topic with a fidgetiness that can leave the reader feeling almost seasick. Still, relax into its motion and the narrative’s fluidity becomes a joy. Runcie is appealingly unfashionable, too – she is erudite, weaving in quotes in ancient Greek and old English and, despite her narrative’s first-person candour, she retains a certain reserve.
Even young weekenders on England’s beaches, faced with a rough sea, react in different ways. The girls jump and scream; the posturing lads throw stones.
This difference both intrigues Charlotte Runcie and bothers her. When she was small, to stand in a rock-pool of clear seawater made her feel “bright and fierce”. That feeling seems to dissipate with the knowledge that women were traditionally kept away from the sea, their mere presence on a boat unlucky and the great sea epics almost empty of them. The sea was not their place. In her lyrical and gently digressive book she analyses, and works to recover, the countering power of her first, elemental, female response to the sea.
"There is a pull,” says Charlotte Runcie, “an understanding between women and the sea that has fascinated and scared men for thousands of years.” It’s a relationship that The Telegraph’s radio critic explores with easy-going erudition in her first book: a seductive, estuarine merging of personal memoir and scholarly reportage which will appeal to fans of Philip Hoare’s hefty hymns to our blue planet... These meanderings are given gentle shape and momentum by the arc of 30-year-old Runcie’s first pregnancy, during which her body – and the aquatic life within – sometimes becomes as powerful, mysterious and frightening as the sea itself.
By the end of the book, her generic, gently nationalist appreciation of the sea has transformed into a specific, strongly feminist position... Runcie writes compellingly about the way her body’s new role as “a mobile aquarium” causes her mind to dwell on death... Occasionally, Runcie’s beautiful, fanciful prose falters...
Runcie is a fine guiding star: wise, curious, sensitive to language and landscape. This isn’t a memoir of swimming — a buoyant publishing mini-genre — but shore-based. Runcie is a walker of sand and shingle, attuned to the tides, the shifting coast and the seabirds who are now rocks, now air, now water. She casts the net wider than other lake-and-lido, water-cure books, going beyond the personal to find sea-going women in art, music, poetry, maps and legends.
This is a cultural history told at the edges of our island story and an account of Runcie’s first pregnancy and early months as a mother. She draws intriguing analogies: a baby in the womb, like a tiny, curled mermaid; the strange similar nauseas of seasickness and morning sickness; the craving for salt; waters breaking; stretchmarks like sandy ridges at low tide.
This is a lyrical, impassioned and curious book. It is subtitled “Women and the Sea” – almost a retort to the unmentioned Hemingway and his The Old Man And The Sea. It enfolds many of the tropes and themes that have dominated recent non-fiction. It is as much a diary as it is a memoir, since it charts the period over which the author discovered she was pregnant, how her body and feelings change over this time and the experience of becoming a mother.