We Were the Salt of the Sea, by Roxanne Bouchard – book review

We Were the Salt of the Sea is quite unlike anything else I have read. The back cover says that it is ‘reminiscent of Annie Proulx’: it may indeed be (I’m unfamiliar with her work), but then the back cover also says it’s a ‘dark and consuming crime thriller’ which it is not. It is, rather, a poetic exploration of life lived within a community. In this case the community is a sea-faring one, but I think that any community which is linked to a mysterious and unknowable entity (religious or perhaps city community – the description of the ‘lifeless living-room’ of the summertime city speaks of a claustrophobia that is real on the coast but unexpressed in this novel) could find itself here. Roxanne Bouchard quickly establishes the sea as a ‘watery goldsmith’ which for me is a metaphor for the sea possibly as a god but certainly something vast and unfathomable.

When picturing the events set in a Quebecois peninsula, I have in my mind’s eye West Bay, the Dorset offshoot of Bridport known for the BBC blockbuster Harbour Lights and the somewhat less successful Broadchurch. But the characters could as easily take up their positions in a Hopper painting. The story begins in 1974 and ends – to the extent that it ends – in 2007 and the character development is measured over decades. The themes of the book are vast, but they include living in the now, working out your integrity and what is important and what is not. Memories are questioned, meaning is challenged and although it may sound trite, the novel is really about people resetting their compass.

That’s one of the reasons why the question of what happened to Marie Galant is largely irrelevant. It isn’t that her death is not important, but its meaning is long-lasting whereas the mechanics are not, and, even if they were, the tides show that truth is based on long-established principles and at the same time hugely ephemeral. We question what it is like to be – hey! – out of water, we watch a detective’s mid-life crisis and we can take the lead character’s pursual of meaning and apply it to our own situations.

I hope that David Warriner enjoyed translating this book, for the language is languid, but peppered with insight both literary and amusing. Bouchard in the main avoids random fishing puns though she allows one of her characters this glorious mixed metaphor:

All I ever knew were fish that never brought home the bacon

Such were the phrases, sentences and ideas of interest that in preparing this short review I have had to set up a spreadsheet to record all of them – something I’ve never done before and something that is ridiculously incongruous given the style, subject matter and language of this book, which cannot be constrained by the limits of Excel.

Don’t listen to the copy on the back cover. This is not a thriller. But it is better, it is unusual and special and you should make time for it.

You can get We Were the Salt of the Sea here.

Thanks to Orenda Books for the review copy.

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