Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Salt Rain by Sarah Armstrong

There are some truly lovely elements at work here in Salt Rain, Sarah Armstrong's first novel. Her prose is strong without trying, and the premise is compelling. Place features largely in this narrative, Armstrong creating a powerful sense of atmosphere in her depiction of the Australian rain forest, with the rain, the heat, the endless cycle I quoted in the entry previous. When 14 year-old Allie's mother Mae apparently drowns in Sydney Harbour, Allie is taken to live with her Aunt Julia, an eccentric tree planter who claims to be giving her land back to the forest. Vines come into the house through her windows, and the rain falls, the floods come. I got the sense of nature as adversary like I'd only read before in Canadian literature. Or rather that nature is not so much adversarial as gigantic so that human drama is minute in comparison. And Armstrong's story does suffer when she tries to correct this imbalance, stretching her story as broadly as her backdrop. Reaching back decades, spanning geographies, and several personal histories. In such a short novel with multiple points of view alternating between chapters in a subjective third-person narration, we don't get the chance to delve into one character adequately, let alone to explore the innumerable stories which branch out from each of their separate experiences. So much must be glossed over, details imparted for the sake of themselves, and the story skims its surfaces. There are suggestions that more is going on in the depths, but we're too busy to be taken there. Insufficiently invested then, the big twist feels facile. Which is disappointing, really, because Armstrong's writing left me with such a powerful sense of this book, I wished the story itself was better explored.