Review: Salt forces us to recognise the length and depth of the shadow of our past

Background image by Berit Watkin (CC BY 2.0).

Sarah Tanburn

Catrin Kean has given us a delightful, timely novel. The jacket tells us it is the story of her great-grandparents who married in 1878. That is a small teaser for the tale of Ellen, the hard-working Tiger Bay girl, and her husband, Samuel.

We meet Ellen at the end of her life, enduring the bombing of Cardiff in 1941. Immediately, we are plunged into a sensory, bewildering world in which a bed-ridden old lady refuses to be a victim and spits curses at the planes. In her ghostly conversation, she takes the label ‘wanderer’ rejecting other tags an uncomprehending world might pin upon her. She revels in memory rather than simply lying still, held down by fear and injury.

Back in her youth, Ellen was a domestic, working for slightly better-off women, looking after their difficult children and cleaning endless sheets. Her mother struggles with her own demons, haunted by memories of the Irish famine while her beloved brother, Bright, is away on the ships. It’s the heyday of Cardiff’s docks and her neighbourhood teems with life and language, with women running their lives while their menfolk disappear down the Bristol Channel for months and years at a time. Sometimes for ever, as they find a better port, or die.

Bright comes home one day, bringing with him a smart black man, an ‘African who is not an African.’ Samuel, with his drawl and his sparkling eyes, is from Barbados, the cook from her brother’s last billet and a charmer. The two youngsters immediately start seeing each other, drawn together by attraction and a mutual fascination with the world. For Ellen, Samuel is an emissary from another place, from that empire of ships and the sea,  from all the beautiful, extraordinary globe which she, a working-class girl from the back streets, dreams about. When Samuel asks her to marry him, she says yes. And when she suggests going with him on the next voyage, despite his surprise, he too says yes.

 

Exploration

And so Ellen begins her wandering, alongside her husband. Once she has suffered through seasickness, she becomes a stalwart in the galley and a firm friend with the women in steerage, those women of the diaspora looking for a better life somewhere new. A great strength of Kean’s story is the solidarity between women, the unexpected friendships which cross boundaries of aspiration and experience. At the same time, she recognises the bonds of class, the importance of dispossession and powerlessness experienced by those who are losing out in the great growth of British hegemony.

It takes Ellen longer to understand the implications of the colour of her husband’s skin. Slavery may be gone, though not for long, and indentured servitude is going strong. Ellen’s understanding comes at the price of learning of his mother’s death in the sugar cane fields and it nearly breaks her apart from Samuel.

More challenging for them in the end, are familial duties and most of all the desire to wander. The joy of exploration tussles with the need to settle. Yet Ellen never stops loving Samuel, and never stops believing that he loves her.  Her conviction even blinds her to the love of others and the possibilities of the easier life she might choose.

Kean’s writing immerses us in the world Samuel and Ellen inhabit. The grimy back streets of Butetown, the mysterious management of the galley at sea, the aromas and smells of the islands. I write of the sea myself and it was a joy to read the lives of people on the merchant ships, from labour to love, and from music to the sound of vomit.

Kean captures the complex nature of life on a long voyage along with the subtle and all-important differences between a happy ship and one ruled by sulleness and distrust. She demonstrates how life afloat is different from women, especially facing pregnancy and the risks of childbirth. Her rich details and clever characterisation deserve Carol Anne Duffy’s cover praise; I for one wanted more even as I enjoyed the pared-down style of story-telling.

True

Of course, Salt is timely too. We, people who are white and who have benefitted from industrial colonisation and chattel slavery even if we also experience poverty and exclusion, are being forced to recognise (again, at last) the length and depth of the shadow of that past. Part of the demand of the Black Lives Matter movement is to understand our history, to remember and dismember the lies we retell about ourselves.

Tiger Bay was a ‘diverse’ neighbourhood, vibrant with the stories of sailors, with mixtures of love and food and colour, for decades before Windrush or the 1919 race riots, let alone the ongoing efforts to understand and measure the ways racism still limits people’s lives. Britain ended slavery in 1833: the first dock opened here only six years later, while the United States kept on the gruesome trade until 1865, about the time Ellen was born.

The structure of the book takes us to and fro between that distant time and the much-retold experiences of the Second World War: this way of telling the story brings the roots of Tiger Bay’s variety much closer to home and emphasises the continuity of lives from people born in slavery to the importance of universal education.

Cardiff, a city born of the Industrial Revolution, has never been a monocultural place, has always relied on its connections with the wider world for its being. Kean’s historical tale, so alive with experience and rooted in true stories, is thus very much a novel for our times.

Salt by Catrin Kean is published by Gomer Press and can be bought here.

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