The Salted Air by Thom Conroy – 2016

salted-airAnother beautifully presented novel by Thom Conroy after his The Naturalist in 2014, an historical novel about the German naturalist Ernst Dieffenbach.  The Salted Air is contemporary and takes the form of the journal of 28 years old Djuna, who is grieving after the suicide of Harvey, her partner.  As it is a journal written by the daughter of literary parents: “Words are like light in a jar” her father once wrote – some of the novel’s short chapters read almost like prose poems.  And there are some striking similes: “As I’m merging into traffic on the highway the sun disappears and a rattling downfall begins.  It looks, for a moment, as if someone has spilled marbles across the surface of the road”.  The changeability of the weather and landscape in the novel gives us a feel for Djuna’s inner turbulence – at one point she describes how the sun and daylight have become conditional to her, the night resolute.  She is critical of herself “Why must I always cast stones?” and she talks of “the extravagance of my grief”.  She is so human – declaring her apparent decisions while describing her contrary actions.  I liked the mundaneness of some of her musings: “the pleasure of staying of other people’s houses is using their personal care products”.  Djuna finds solace in her grief with the brother of her dead partner – triggering the main impetus of the novel: Djuna trying to work out if Bruce, the brother, is what she is looking for or what she should be running away from.  She is also dealing with the split up of the ideal and idealised family unit she grew up in – with her mother in America and her father living in an abandoned East Coast camping ground; the coming into focus of Lyle, a friend of Harvey’s; and her grieving for the children she and Harvey will never have.  There are lots of interesting characters along the way as she travels from Wellington to Palmerston North and then heads up North to find her father – with Bruce’s daughter Ella in tow.  The personalised nature of the book makes for some frustrations in knowing what is going on with some of these other characters – Joanne (Bruce’s wife and Ella’s mother) in particular – would she really have let Djuna take Ella away? And what happens to her given how events eventually unfold?  Having said that it is when the narrative stayed personal that I loved the book, but when it veered into general descriptions of Maori grievances it lost its focus for me – and Djuna appeared quite racist, which I doubt was intended.  Some criticised The Naturalist for ranging too widely in his telling of Ernst Dieffenbach’s story, where I found it a fine portrait, but I would criticise The Salted Sea for doing something similar, adding too much into the mix that Djuna has to think through.  The Salted Air is a really good book, but for me if Conroy had stuck to the ultra-personal, it would have been a great one.



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