Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
The Salt Madonna is the debut novel by Catherine Noske, a writer and academic at the University of Western Australia. It is also a novel where the title is closely linked to the story between its covers both literally and figuratively.
The story is set on an island and therefore it embraces the insular characteristics that island living have. At the beginning there is a feeling of desolation on this island. All the young people leave after year nine, jobs are being lost and this becomes a fertile ground for what is to follow. Hannah, who is the inspiration for the storyline, herself lived on the island but went away to become a teacher. She returns to look after her terminally ill mother and teach at the local school. This is where she meets Mary, a fourteen-year old student in her class. Mary becomes the pivot around which the rest of this storyline spins.
The author has an unusual writing style. Hannah often speaks directly to the reader. ‘Today I met a girl who looked like Mary’… ‘Once upon a time, a girl called Mary lived on an island called Chesil. Once upon a time, my mother was dying and I went home’ (1). ‘It might be good for me, writing about the island’ (3). ‘Perhaps I should go further back so you understand’ (88). You can see it though, can’t you – how I am to blame for this?’ (260). ‘But a story like this cannot be told from one set of eyes. There are too many things you have to see’ (8).
Around these intimate times between Hannah and the reader, the author tells the story in the third person so it unfolds from different perspectives. Hannah’s story is also told in the third person. ‘Hannah nods, looks down to find the verse’ (234).
This chosenway of writing does mean that the reader is often given the same piece of information several times.
At the beginning of the book there is a paragraph from The Handmaid’s Tale and the Media Release states, ‘A stunning debut for readers of The Handmaid’s Tale or The Natural Way of Things’. For me, I was reminded of The Crucible, of how a single event can trigger a movement or cult, that, as it grows, it gains a momentum of its own which destroys while at the same time appears to satisfy a need in certain people. This book is all about needs. The personal needs of individuals and of the island society. Hannah tells us that her need was selfish. Her need was to feel accepted, to feel herself belonging to something to someone again. For others on the island, it was a need for faith which has preconditions in need and hopefulness. Later Hannah began to realise that there were many others with different needs around her: people who lacked opportunity, or independence, or safety.
Faith plays a large part in this story. Even the arrangement of the chapters is linked to faith. Many begin with a Roman numeral, a date in 1992 and activities on the Church calendar which have significance around that date.
Father John is the central figure of religion on the island. He has lost his wife and appears to have lost his belief and drive to nurture others. Church attendance is dropping, leaving just a small group of dedicated women who need to feel important. They go to church while their husbands go to the pub.
Father John’s faith returns as the numbers in his congregation increase and as he begins to see visions of his dead wife. The island people flock back to the church and others come from the mainland to swell their numbers. Hannah, looking from the outside, and believing herself to be the voice of reason tells the reader, ‘That catching of faith, it is something from the twentieth century …. It moved like a current or a rip in the water – nothing was visible on the surface. All the power was in the undertow’ (193).
Then there is the statue of the Virgin on the island which is lashed by the storm. During the night the waves and wind wash over her again and again revealing, in the morning, a figure bent back with arms pointing to the heavens, made new by the elements, making her look like a shining pillar of salt. To the believers this is a miracle and further enhances the strength of what they have come to believe.
For a debut novel, this is quite a powerful story and shows how un-restrained zeal can sweep all before it and leave rational thought behind. Sometimes this is to the detriment of feelings for humanity. I enjoyed the story, even though it left me shaking my head at how human nature can be so manipulated. I was also a little frustrated about how some aspects of the story were left unresolved.
The Salt Madonna