Two debut novels from Salt

Reviewed by Annabel

Salt Publishing, based in Cromer, Norfolk hit the headlines earlier this year In May. They were in danger of folding, and urged readers in a Twitter campaign to buy #JustOneBook via their online shop or indie book stores to keep them from going under. It worked, raising over £16,000 from 1700 orders and it kept them afloat. Luckily, their lists are full of wonderful, distinctive novels and it wasn’t difficult to find a couple of books to order to play my part. In this post, however, I’ll highlight two debut novels from their current list.

Liminal by Bee Lewis

The minute I saw the cover of this book I wanted to read it: this feeling was compounded by the blurb, which describes it as “part literary thriller, part eco-cry”. The title is certainly literary – liminal – meaning on the threshhold being a word not often used in normal conversation. Note the styling of the title too – as a vintage railway sign. Nature, rabbits (more precisely hares) and an old railway station – everything on the cover is symbolic in this story, which is told over five days.

It begins with a mountain hare, sensing that spring is on the way, before moving to Dan and Esther, who are travelling north towards their new home in the Scottish Highlands.

Their plans are to develop the disused railway station they’ve bought and create a B&B where they can bring up a family. Dan, who’d been made redundant, has been working there to get it ready for Esther’s arrival.

Esther is pregnant. She is also an amputee – she calls her prosthetic leg ‘Peggy’. She is also unsure about Daniel – something had happened between them to make her take off her wedding ring. We learn all of these things in the first few pages, but not how or why yet.

She wondered again whether they were just running away from the problems they’d left behind in Bristol. The city was her touchstone, its roads were rooted in her veins, its houses in her cells. Yet she’d agreed to leave her sanctuary, trading the strident city streets for the cool mountain air and yawning expanse. She’d  heard her rational self trotting out the reasons why: new life, fresh start, fantastic opportunity, support for Dan. But she couldn’t ignore the small voice deep inside her that invaded her dreams and called her out for the coward she was.

They arrive and set about making themselves comfortable. Some food has been left for them; they assume it might have been the agent – until a visitor arrives. Mike, another incomer, from County Clare, has lived in the Highlands for many years, and is their nearest neighbour, living about two miles up the glen. They’re getting to know each other, when the electrics fizzle, the men go off to see if they can mend it, leaving Esther alone in the dark, missing her best friend Sophie. There’s something odd about Mike though and Esther can’t put her finger on it.

A new day dawns, Esther explores, finding strange features of their new home. At night, she is taunted by vivid dreams running away from a shadowy figure in a forest. As the week goes on, Esther becomes to feel increasingly isolated. Dan is never there, off on errands, Mike keeps appearing. The landscape and her dreams haunt her day and night. We gradually discover the secrets hinted at before, about her accident, her grief and what happened with Dan. All is bound up in the symbolism of the hare, who is always around watching.

Liminal is a suspenseful novel, well told. The new life, new baby story trope may be one of cliche, but here, bound up as it is in the landscape and ancient mythology of the glens, in Esther’s isolation, it takes a new and surprising direction. I enjoyed this very much.

The Book of Alexander by Mark Carew

Who is Alexander? This is the central question of Mark Carew’s debut novel, an existential detective story, sort of metafictional but not in the same way as Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy in which an author named Paul Auster appears. As this novel begins, a man arrives for an appointment with another man who is a detective and narrator of the story:

He wanted me to watch a young man to whom he referred as someone of whom the family had taken notice. I enquired further, and it turned out that his daughter was interested in this young man, whose name was Alexander, and my client wanted to know more about him. His daughter, Penny, was quite taken with her boyfriend, but the family name needed to be protected.

Terms are agreed, information is given – the handsome Alexander is a student of fine art, his address is supplied, and the detective takes the case. The next day, he goes to scope out Alexander’s address, and is soon rewarded with a glimpse of his quarry, riding up to the house on a bicycle.

The detective can’t stay in his car all the time, though, he needs a better stake-out location. Spotting the blanked out windows of the disused car showroom attached to the garage over the road, he strikes up a conversation with the owner. The detective pretends to be a real undercover police officer and the garage owner is rather excited to be a crucial link in his investigation, and brings the detective coffee and biscuits.

As the days go on, the detective observes Alexander’s comings and goings, watches him sitting in the upstairs window of the flat, and compiles information for his report. He needs more though… he needs to get inside Alexander’s house. To say more would be to spoil things – in this respect, I recommend you don’t read the blurb!

The Book of Alexander was an interesting novel, very much a thought experiment in fictional form. We’re always wondering about the detective as much as his quarry and this makes for a rather mysterious read, another very enjoyable debut from Salt.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Bee Lewis, LIminal (Salt, 2018). 978-1784631383, 256pp., paperback original,

Mark Carew, The Book of Alexander (Salt, 2018). 978-1784631321, 224pp., paperback original.

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