CM . . .
. Volume XIV Number 3 . . . .September 28, 2007
Toronto, ON: Anchor Canada/Random House Canada, 2006.
218 pp., pbk., $17.95.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Darleen Golke.
Outside, she lifted her face to the rain. This very drop may have once slid down Mae's cheek, the clouds trapped inside the valley walls year after year, the taste of drops of rain falling back into the valley. It was salty on her tongue, like tears, like blood, and for a moment she could taste her mother. There was nothing but the ceaseless rain, running down her body, soaking the soil, filling the creeks.
The First Love would hold the strongest traces of her mother. His skin would still carry her touch. Their afternoons by the creek must be held somewhere in his body.
Allie went inside and put on one of her mother's dresses, looping the belt tight. She walked down the muddy driveway and along the gravel road that followed the curves of the meandering creek. She would walk until she found him.
A car came around the corner and she stepped off the road into the dense bush, sinking deep into the dark leaf litter as she gripped the slippery tree trunks and vines and pulled herself up the steep hill. The soaking rain entered her nose and eyes and glued her stringy hair to her cheeks. Everything was wet, and as she climbed, she surrendered herself to the blood-warm air and rain.
She found a forestry road cutting a clay swathe through the trees and then narrow animal tracks that led through a wall of prickly lantana to an abandoned banana plantation. The banana palms leaned down the hill, small overripe fruit hanging in heavy bunches and purple flowers dripping pollen. She pressed her cheek hard against a shining rain-slick trunk, like Mae would when they hid in the Botanic Gardens at night. In the dark, after the park rangers had gone, Mae would run across the springy grass to one of the huge fig trees and climb its buttress roots. Later, Allie would lean back against her mother, wrapped in the coat that Mae turned fur-side in, and she would reach up to trace the indentations that the tree had left in her mother's cheek.
Salt Rain introduces Allie Curran in an intriguing coming-of-age tale set against the rainforest landscape of Northern Australia's New South Wales during the rainy season. Allie arrives at the Curran farm with her Aunt Julia after her mother, Mae, disappears from their Sydney home, her dingy found floating in the harbour. Convinced Mae has merely gone off to "get herself together" as she had often done, Allie insists she must return to Sydney, but when officials verify the discovery of Mae's drowned body, Allie must accept her mother's death. Julia tries to spare Allie the details of her mother's apparent suicide provided by the police, only later revealing that Mae had phoned her before going out in the dingy the night she died, "calling in her debts," asking Julia to come to Sydney, "to take care of [Allie]," "to get [her], and bring [her] back up here" to the farm. Now Mae's body returns home to be buried in the village where she was born and had lived until leaving with her baby 14 years earlier.
Mae had spun stories for Allie of the farm and her life, especially about her First Love, details embellished with each telling. Convinced Saul Philips must be her father, Allie sets out to spend time with him. Saul, both captivated and frightened by Allie's remarkable resemblance to her mother, welcomes Allie's presence, but when he understands Allie's delusion, insists he cannot possibly be her father. Although he and Mae regularly explored each other's bodies, they never consummated their passion. When Julia supports Saul's disclaimer, Allie must accept that either Saul and Julie now lie or Mae lied. Gradually, she remembers "how Mae used to change her stories over time" so that Allie "couldn't keep track of [her] stories." Allie knows her mother's weaknesses and admits to Petal, Julia's friend, that Mae paid their bills with sex, "an easy way to pay bills... Taxis... the local grocer." At Allie's fifteenth birthday celebration, her great-grandmother speaks plainly and cruelly about Mae's shame, "a girl in trouble;" Allie is not mollified by the assurance "that babies are born perfectly innocent and pure."
Overhearing Julia tell Saul that Mae committed suicide devastates Allie who runs to Mae's valley haunt, then arrives soaking wet, bedraggled, scratched, and covered in leeches at Saul's house. Although Saul realizes he should hold her "at arm's length," he succumbs to her willing and eager body unable, he admits later, to separate her from her mother. "I don't think I was clear, I was still caught up in stuff around your mother... I am afraid of myself and how I've confused you and Mae in my head." Allie's loss of innocence propels Julia into confronting Saul and informing him of the family secret she has carried for more than fifteen years - Allie's paternity.
Armstrong organizes the novel from three points of view: Allie, Julia, and Saul. Obviously, the main thrust focuses on Allie with Julia and Saul contributing background as well as their own involvement in Mae's story, the core around which the action revolves. As Allie moves toward understanding her heritage, Julia stands as her protector and guide. Julia, a child witness to incest, struggled to find meaning in life and has embarked upon a personal crusade to return the cultivated farmland to rainforest, "letting the forest reclaim its land." "I'm letting the forest take its own back. Letting natural order re-establish itself." Saul's ambivalence and his return to the farm of his youth suggest he still has not dealt with Mae's betrayal.
Armstrong vibrantly describes the overwhelming and pervasive atmosphere of the rain forest, the unrelenting rain, the mud, the floods, with the "salt rain" permeating everything. The water motif that runs throughout from Allie's birth during a major flood to her return during "the wettest it's been in years... heading for one of the big floods" connects Allie to Mae: "This very drop may have once slid down Mae's cheek... salty on her tongue, like tears, like blood, and for a moment she could taste her mother." The human suffering unfolds against the backdrop of natural order and as Julia seeks to restore the balance of nature disturbed by humans, so healing may come to the humans as the truth of unnatural events that disrupted their lives stands revealed. As Allie struggles to accept her mother's death, discover her paternity, adapt to her new environment, and understand her changing body, she uncovers painful realities. Armed with new knowledge and surrounded by caring adults, the reader anticipates her maturely moving forward. Well-written, nicely paced, and packed with gripping emotional highs and lows, Salt Rain is a powerful novel for mature readers as it candidly discusses sex, sexuality, and incest.
Australian Armstrong, an author, journalist, writing and yoga teacher, left a successful Sydney journalism career to settle in a valley outside Mullumbimby to concentrate on her writing, obviously successfully. Salt Rain received nominations for the 2005 Queensland Premier's Literary Award, the 2005 Miles Franklin Literary Award, and the Dobbie Award for a first novel by a woman, short listed for the latter two.
Darleen Golke, a former teacher-librarian, lives in Abbotsford, BC.
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