In the debut novel by Madelaine Lucas thirst for salt, the unnamed narrator is known only for the affection her much older lover gives her. First “Sharkbait” and then “Love”. Set in the fictional town of Sailors Beach on the south coast of New South Wales, the book delves deep into love, nostalgia and femininity.
It is also a heartfelt declaration of love for the Australian landscape and the Pacific Ocean in particular. Reading it in the days since returning to New York from Sydney, the powerful, lyrical rendering of the landscape feels true in a way that can only come from deep longing.
“I think this book is a book about the Pacific,” Lucas tells me over lemon pie in the kitchen of her home in the hip Brooklyn suburb of Williamsburg. “The Atlantic does not arouse the same feelings in me.”
Lucas wrote the book to explore the idea of memory and “the way certain memories have become almost mythologized over time.” As is most common in our memories of intimacy, love, and home. thirst for salt is a product of her double life as an Australian and a New Yorker.
“I don’t know if I would have written about Australia in this way, in such an intricate way, if I had lived there,” she says.
Like me, Lucas is an Australian living in New York. When she entered graduate school in 2015—Lucas and I were attending Columbia University at the same time and overlapping in our sophomore year—she weathered those turbulent years in America in the only way possible, like standing in the sea at high tide. Her novel, begun as a short story many years ago and edited during the pandemic, evokes with confident beauty a version of home that I’ve held firmly in my mind during these angsty months.
I want to know if she came to America to write about Australia. She says it just happened that way.
“If you’re trying to have some perspective on America, it didn’t seem like I had anything of value to add to this conversation. I think I feel different now, I think after living here for seven, almost eight years maybe it feels like New York is a place where you have to earn it to write about it. “
I remind her of what we all hear when we live in New York, that you’re not a New Yorker until you’ve been here 10 years, and she laughs and suggests the pandemic years should count more.
“In a way, the decision to leave the place you grew up and build a different life almost creates another fork in the road, or what I consider more of a ’90s kid, sliding door moment. It seems impossible not to compare the life you could lead to the life you are living now and I think to a certain extent it is very inconsistent.”
This uneasiness is at the heart of Lucas’s novel, which takes place entirely within the memories of its narrator, who has returned from New York and is stimulated by an image of her ex and his child.
It hums with longing for a version of home that we might miss most during the long, cold North Atlantic winter months — a perfect seaside hamlet, the clean, clear waters of Jervis Bay (Lucas confirms that this was the place that she had within her spirit, as she wrote) and the love of an unfathomable and mysterious man: Imagine if Chris Hemsworth had never become Thor, but had become a seed, living alone on the beach in a cabin his parents gave him had left.
The book is not a Mills and Boon corset ripper. It’s a love story, but not a love story. The relationships it observes, between lovers, friends, siblings, mother and daughter, lover and dog, and between woman and place, are all rendered tenderly and equally important.
In the process of publishing my own book, set in Australia, in America (my novel will be published in 2024), I am very aware of how Australia is viewed by Americans. I ask Lucas if she also had to press certain language or phrases to stay. she grins.
Australians and Americans have very different relationships with fear.
“I was a big proponent of ‘rooting’, which I’ve been told Americans don’t understand, but I thought Americans could learn. I’m happy to teach Americans how to root. I remembered that in particular because I thought it was so funny, but I also think there are only minor differences – how a blowfly looks very different than a normal jellyfish and I try to have a few conversations about that too. “
I want to know if the nickname “Sharkbait” is inspired by the American obsession with the sharks in our waters. We laugh at how fixated our American friends are on her. On a recent trip home, I sent someone a video of the sun rising over the Pacific Ocean, all pinks and purples reflecting off the crystal clear sea gently foaming around my ankles. “Don’t get eaten,” was the reply I received.
“I think Australians and Americans have very different relationships that they have to fear,” says Lucas. “There are things about life in America that still scare me, but people won’t get over the idea that sharks live in the ocean. And that’s a fear I think I’ve just made peace with.”
On the day we meet there was another shooting at a school, more children and teachers were killed and wounded. American violence is different from the kind we know at home.
“We’re building new roads, renaming the cities, reclaiming the land and giving it back here in Australia, the country I grew up in, as if it were possible to circumnavigate memory,” Lucas writes at one point in the Novel. When I ask her how that phrase hints at the much larger conversation our country is engaged in, she tells me it was something she had to fight for.
“It was really important to talk about this idea of the violence of erasure in the novel, and also … I wanted to create a sense of the narrator’s own discomfort at certain points in the natural environment, and this sense that I might not be.” should be here, or we shouldn’t be here.”
It’s something I grapple with in my own writing: the violence of the Australian landscape, and something that ties together every work of Australian literature I’ve ever encountered. Perhaps the sea is our ointment. We find solace in it because it is not possible to ever claim it for anyone.
“Living in Sydney, I always felt that going into the sea and feeling small compared to your size is a kind of cure for all heartache. It would always put things into perspective.”
thirst for salt is available now through Allen & Unwin for $32.99.