Sunday, April 23, 2006

#33 - Salt Rain

Normally, I choose books to read based on a number of things: I read a good review; it's an author I like; there's a movie coming out; it's a classic; someone's recommended the book or I've heard a lot of buzz about it. In the very, very rare instance I'll read a book based on the cover, which is why I read Sarah Armstrong's first novel, Salt Rain. With such a gorgeous green cover, it felt extremely relevant to be reading the novel on Earth Day of all days.

Armstrong's from Australia, and like Camilla Gibb's Sweetness in the Belly, her novel also transported me to a world quite unfamiliar to my own. Set in the valley of the Australian backcountry, where they have a rainy season and farmers are used to extreme flooding, Salt Rain tells the story of Allie, a 14-year-old girl whose mother has just gone missing in the Sydney Harbour.

Allie's aunt, Julia, Mae (her mother's) younger sister, takes her back to the farm where they were both raised. The complex family relationship countered with the volatile nature of the environment (the floods) balances a dense and sombre novel. While the crux of the Salt Rain revolves around Allie finding out about the truth of her birth, the prose, thick like the rain forest, with level after level of metaphor, works remarkably well with the simplistic storyline.

As much as the book is Allie's story, her quest to find her father and to know the truth about her mother, it's also about Julia. The two women find their way around each other, navigating the steps of their new relationship, as hard as that is when its defined by bloodlines and death. As Allie sits in opposition to her aunt most of the time, Julia faces her own demons in her family history. She's letting the farm go back to nature, planting trees instead of harvesting them, and feels the wrath of her grandmother and uncle. How the two women come to an understand that eventually leads to a quiet revolution in both of their lives is both touching and necessary.

And for a novel I picked up on a whim, I was so pleasantly surprised by Salt Rain that it kind of took me aback. It's nice to see something so beautiful from an aesthetic point of view, actually be that way too between the covers.

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