Thirst for Salt by Madelaine Lucas
Every relationship is a small miracle: without warning, without any discernible sign of connection before it happens, two different worlds, previously unknown to each other, collide.
Set in the fictional Australian coastal town of Sailors Beach, Madelaine Lucas’ debut explores a particularly challenging collision: the relationship of an unnamed 24-year-old narrator with Jude, an antiques restorer and former actor. There is an 18-year difference between them – “a whole youth, a coming of age” – and for our narrator the promise of experience.
“There’s a lot you can tell about a person,” Jude informs our narrator shortly after their first encounter (prismatic beach, summer reading put aside), “from a chair or their kitchen table.” He’s referring to his own nature, practical, pragmatic— but also to the indelible of how we mark things. During their meetings, he keeps a low profile and never quite defines the contours of the relationship. It’s unclear if something in his nature encourages this, or if his holding back is some acknowledgment of the relationship’s power imbalance. (The novel provides clues that favor both readings.)
The narrator is youthful, naive; hers is the reticence of a person who intimidates because they are too open, too disarmingly vulnerable. So innocence is shown as a kind of power – albeit one where the dividends are guaranteed by uncertainty: Can I give him something he’s never experienced? Show him something new? Does he even take me seriously?
When she greets Jude with a raised hand early in the relationship, it’s a raised hand, she reflects, “halfway between a hold and a wave.” She wants to invite the world in but fears her ability to manage her risks. Part of the novel’s genius lies in convincingly ambiguous Jude’s feelings towards the narrator. It does so not so much as a plot device, but as a recognizable believable detailing of the way relationships often play out. We are made to feel that Jude is not necessarily callous. For example, he is willing to meet the narrator when she arrives at the train station and appears – at least to her – vulnerable.
But is that because she needs him? By what standard must she measure his seeming ignorance? She spends more time traveling to meet him – and sacrifices more – than he does. She imagines a house on Sailors Beach; He visits their shared apartment in Sydney and keeps his shoes on like he’s always ready to go. In a way, its aura of departure is inescapable; he is inevitably ahead of her. His “winning hand all the years he’s had over me” is time.
There is another relationship in the book that is based on age classification: that between the narrator and her mother. Here, too, there is vulnerability, both in the narrator’s need to distance herself – “For the first time I felt worthy of a love that wasn’t my mother’s” – and to admit that this need for separation binds her to her mother.
When the narrator describes coming across tables in Jude’s antique shop “made of rustic wood that I could later identify,” she also comments on the novel’s mode: juxtaposing then and now to show each the type of To impart symmetry that is only possible in retrospect when things—both oddballs and lives of vastly different proportions—can be strung together and tackled properly.