Thanks to Canongate and NetGalley for the review copy.
I’m beginning to wonder if Canongate are even capable of publishing a bad book.
Salt on Your Tongue by Charlotte Runcie is a wonderful exploration of women and the sea. Interspersed with Runcie’s personal experiences as a woman and her relationships with women in her life, in particular her grandmother, are writings about myths, folkore and superstitions linked to the sea as well as history, art, religion, literature, culture and the natural world. There is a Scottish focus for much of the book, particularly the East Coast of Scotland. I grew up in the Highlands of Scotland very close to the sea and have always felt its lure. Some of my ancestors were fishermen and many relatives both current and distant still live by the sea. The author explores other coastal settings in Scotland familiar to me such as Skye, the Scottish Islands, Edinburgh, and the coastal regions around Fife as well as other settings around the UK and the world.
Basically, this book has everything I love in the world in it. The sea? Check. Links to myths? Check. Social History? Check. Folklore? Check. Experiences as a new mother? Check. Birds? Check. This book really sung to me and I think it would strike a chord with many women in their twenties and thirties who all too often can feel themselves a bit adrift. Towards the beginning of the book Runcie writes:
“I am in my mid-twenties now, a time that should be spent finding out who you are, travelling, and going on adventures. One friend has moved to Australia; another to Canada. Facebook shows me university acquaintances who are now running marathons and securing dream jobs. I am doing none of these things. I don’t have any fully-formed dreams to work towards. In late-night panics I research possible careers that would require a completely different set of skills.”
I feel I could have written this myself. I too agonise over all the things I should have done or should be doing and feel that mild (or not so mild) panic when I see the jolly good time that everyone else seems to be having. The author’s experiences with pregnancy also mirrored many of mine, the sickness, the worries, the hospital visits, the needlessly terrifying antenatal classes and the myriad hopes and fears that come with having a new life growing inside you. Will you lose your identity? Will something go wrong? What dreams will have to be sacrificed? Is it an ending or a beginning? What will change and what does that change mean for me?
As well as the personal reflections, I learned a lot of new things reading this book. Of particular interest was learning about the production of Sea Silk, the history of Grace Darling and reading about Joan Eardly, an artist who did much of her work in a small village close to where I live now. It was those links that really enhanced this book for me. Interestingly, I also learned you have more chance surviving a near drowning in salt water than freshwater, who knew?
The author also discusses the reality that all too often women’s skills, lives and experiences have been devalued throughout history and the current day. The sneering attitude towards motherhood (sadly in my personal experience most often from other women) is also explored. Runcie highlights a quote from Cyril Connolly: “the enemy of art is the pram in the hall” and I’d argue that this attitude is still very much alive and well. The constant push and pull of women’s expectations mirrors that of the sea, and throughout the book the sea is ever present with its ebbs and flows, tides, the moon, life and death.
When you read this book, you will probably also feel a desperate need to go to every place mentioned and you WILL spend time falling into rabbit holes googling and researching all of the places and histories mentioned in the book.
Aside from being a great personal read, this book would also make a wonderful gift. I will be buying copies for some of the women in my life too as there was so much in it that linked to the shared experiences women have, young and old, mothers or childless/childfree. It is also an interesting book for anyone interested in the sea, or Scotland in general. Just a wonderful, special book and one that I highly recommend.