Book Review: Salt by Catrin Kean

Book - Salt by Catrin KeanBased on a true story, Salt begins in Cardiff, in 1883, where young Ellen lives a dull and lonely life, working as a domestic. She longs to escape, but is forced to witness her mother’s daily turmoil, as she confronts the ghosts of her past. Then, one day, Ellen meets Samuel, a ship’s cook from Barbados. Despite the disapproval of some, they fall in love and get married, and Ellen is able to fulfill her childhood dream of running away to sea. Together, they set sail for San Francisco, working their way across the Atlantic Ocean, getting to know each other along the way.  

But life isn’t all plain sailing. Ellen is afraid of what might happen if they start a family, worried about leaving her mother alone in Cardiff, and curious to discover more of her husband’s past. There is an undercurrent of anger and fearfulness. An unspoken burden looms over every aspect of their life together, sparked by the racist comments of friends, family and strangers. Ellen attempts to ignore such comments, but she soon begins to realise that these things cannot be avoided forever, especially when confronted with the harsh reality of Samuel’s childhood, growing up on a sugar plantation.

Many years later, it is 1941 and Ellen is looking back on her younger days, remembering her early enthusiasm to travel the world. What made her decide to return to Cardiff all those years ago? Has she learned from her mistakes? And will her children suffer in the same way that Samuel suffered?

I would have liked to become immersed in the plot for a little longer (the book is just under 200 pages) and to discover more of Ellen’s later life. However, there is something quite beautiful about the style of writing in this short novel. It is poetic and succinct, with brief paragraphs surrounded by white space, painting miniature pictures in the reader’s mind.

Here is the moment they arrive in Barbados:

They leaned on the rail. Even in the darkness the air was so humid she could taste it, its warmth inside her chest melting away the last of the pleurisy… she could smell the island, a sweet saltiness and a scent of warm earth…

She was glad to leave that dreadful ship but as she disembarked and Samuel left her to fetch their sea-chest she felt shy. She was used to port bustle – shouting men, women with baskets on their heads, donkeys, horses, a skit of escaped piglets. But here, hers was the only white face. Elegant women with bright white dresses and parasols passed by and as they glanced at her she turned away, self-conscious.

Is this how Samuel feels? She wondered.

Kean evokes the sights, scents and sounds of industrial Cardiff, the ship, the sea ports, San Francisco and Barbados in a way that makes you feel like you’re right there, in the moment. The story moves quickly, but she also draws the reader right in to the emotional turmoil of each key moment, as her characters face some tough, life-changing decisions.

This is a short but powerful tale that will tear at your heartstrings. I’m always intrigued to read books set in Cardiff’s industrial past, having spent many years researching the city’s history, and this story succeeds in examining one of the city’s most uncomfortable truths: that, despite its long history as a welcoming, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural port, many have suffered due to the racism and xenophobia that simmers below the surface.

Buy a copy of Salt by Catrin Kean

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