The story is told in numbered fragments, a modish narrative device that doesn’t always work. Saltwater is billed as “for fans of Sally Rooney and Olivia Laing”, but Andrews has little in common with either. You can draw a much stronger line to Sara Baume, whose novel A Line Made By Walking follows a young woman’s breakdown in another Irish cottage, or Jenny Offil’s Dept of Speculation, a masterpiece of the disjointed form. In Saltwater’s case, the fragments suit the protagonist’s youth: though the existence of the internet is barely acknowledged, Lucy is of a generation raised by social media, a medium comprised of brief chunks of text devoted to self-exposure. At the same time, the structure mimics the nature of memory... This is a courageous book dealing frankly with youth, puberty, mother-daughter relationships, class, disability and alcoholism. There are difficult truths, but no wallowing... There were times when I wanted to hear more about the other characters, but then the entire project is devoted to one young woman’s subjectivity. There is little dialogue, but if the interiority can occasionally feel wearing, it is worth it for its refreshing perspective.
In London, we get scenes of crazy warehouse parties, sleazy bar owners, poor grades and class struggles as Lucy works part time to support her education. In the remote landscape of Donegal, however, a new woman emerges. Echoing the fluidity elsewhere in the book, there is a poignant moving away from the meagreness and restriction of her old existence: “I want a life that is full, which means dirty and delicious. Order seems to mean emptiness, or at least it does for me. I want coffee spilled on the carpet and stew slopped across the stove … I want to learn abundance; how to have things without fear.”
The twentysomething debut author Jessica Andrews apparently cut up the manuscript of her millennial coming-of-age novel and rearranged it on the kitchen floor. It might sound gimmicky, but the resulting narrative, which progresses via lyrical, numbered instalments, reflects narrator Lucy’s struggles to find a shape and space to inhabit — both metaphorically and literally... Authenticating references are over-egged (fake tan, Matey bubble bath, Skips crisps), and there’s a temporary loss of momentum mid-way, but this is nonetheless a sharply observed and poignant first outing.
Saltwater is raw, intimate and authentic but lacking in intrigue or critical distance. It’s a shame, because somewhere in here is a story about disadvantage that deserves to be heard. Andrews obviously has talent; it just needs nurturing more carefully. A novel should be more than a bunch of feels.