The Salt Madonna
Literary fiction (novel)
Here’s a book I’ve just started reading, and I’m already absolutely intrigued with the story and enchanted by the writing. The Salt Madonna is the debut novel of Catherine (Kate) Noske—well known in the Western Australian writing and publishing community, and far beyond that, as editor of the literary journal Westerly. Kate is also a lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Western Australia and sits on the board of Writing WA. She has been a judge of the WA Premier’s Book Awards, the TAG Hungerford Award and the ALS Gold Medal.
Kate’s undergraduate academic work won her the A.D. Hope Prize, while her creative writing achievements include shortlisting for the 2015 Dorothy Hewett Award, a Varuna fellowship and the Elyne Mitchell Prize for Rural Women Writers (which she has won twice).
The back-cover blurb of The Salt Madonna reads…
This is the story of a crime.
This is the story of a miracle.
There are two stories here.
Hannah Mulvey left her island home as a teenager. But her stubborn, defiant mother is dying, and now Hannah has returned to Chesil, taking up a teaching post at the tiny schoolhouse, doing what she can in the long days of this final year.
But though Hannah cannot pinpoint exactly when it begins, something threatens her small community. A girl disappears entirely from class. Odd reports and rumours reach her through her young charges. People mutter on street corners, the church bell tolls through the night and the island’s women gather at strange hours…And then the miracles begin.
A page-turning, thought-provoking portrayal of a remote community caught up in a collective moment of madness, of good intentions turned terribly awry. A blistering examination of truth and power, and how we might tell one from the other.
Over now to Kate…
2 things that inspired the book
The Salt Madonna has taken me more than ten years to write, so narrowing down the list of things that have inspired the writing in that time is difficult…
Perhaps the first one should be the moment that started it all. I spent most of 2009 travelling and working around France. In that time, I saw Lourdes and saw playing out there still the story of Bernadette of Lourdes, well over a hundred years later. Small places have long memories—that has been important in my writing. And anyone who has read the story will see the effect Bernadette has had on my writing of Mary as a character! But the most important moment of that trip was quite random—I started writing sitting on a clifftop near Arromanches. I had been watching a girl running across a field of yellow grass, and this image of Mary as a character came to me, almost completely fully formed. The passage I wrote in my diary that day is still in the final version of the book.
The second thing which has more consistently inspired me is being with my horses. They feature in the book, and riding is as important to Hannah as it is to me. The black horse is one of my favourite characters, and he is influenced by two horses I know and love. But they also became a symbol for me of everything that is complicated in white Australian being-in-place—riding a horse in the bush comes with such a legacy of colonial exploration and exploitation of the land. The image of the stockman is part of that colonial identity. But horses are also much more sensitive to the bush than we are, and riding through that space is a way of being connected to it—they listen to the bush more carefully than we do, and encourage us to notice things we might not otherwise. So there is always a lot going on in the simple act of riding… (Plus I just love my horses.)
2 places connected with the book
My book is in a way caught between two places. When I was first writing it, I was imagining my home, Narrawong, a little place near Portland in south-west Victoria. But it was very difficult to write fiction layered over that space. It felt as though I was too close to it, and it was too important to me. I also didn’t want people to think that this was based on real life in any way. It is very definitely fiction. So I started to transplant the story to an imagined place. I actually began writing it as set in Western Australia, off the coast of Albany. That wasn’t a random choice: Albany and Portland have a lot in common in terms of geographic and geological form, latitude, size, industry. They are both, most importantly for my purposes, facing the Southern Ocean. Even before I had moved over here to Western Australia, and before I had visited Albany, I was writing over that space. There is a disturbing politics in my having done that. At the heart of it, I think my home as a place has the strongest influence over my work. But I needed some distance from it to be able to write about it, and imagining it mapped across the country around Albany gave me that space.
The setting in the book is an island. That was something I was firm on very early. I love small towns, and the dual power of isolation bringing people together and creating tension in proximity. Lady Julia Percy Island is off the coast of Narrawong, and I used to be able to see it from my home as a child—it was a powerful imaginative space for me too. Chesil is grounded in these memories. In the end, I am not sure where it is, what piece of coast it is connected to. Perhaps both Victoria and Western Australia, as I am. When I did eventually travel to Albany, it felt in a way already familiar—an illusion, I’m sure, but a strange and powerful one!
2 favourite names
I’m not so good at names, but there are two in the book which feel particularly right. The first is almost not a name—the black horse. It seems lazy on my part not to name him, I know. It was something my editor questioned! It also seems cold of Laura as a character not to have a name for him. But it isn’t just laziness; it has a basis. There is an old superstition that it is unlucky to change a horse’s name. The black horse in the book is a present to Laura, a high-bred horse with a fancy stud name. It seemed antithetical to my idea of Laura that she would like that—she is very down-to-earth, and I couldn’t imagine her using it. But I also wanted to hint at a little vein of superstition in her character, alongside some stubbornness, that she wouldn’t change it, either, and would refer to him simply by his colour. Her superstition becomes important in the story, and this was a subtle way for me to set it up. So subtle probably that very few readers will notice it. But it was still very satisfying for me—it helped me write her.
The other name I am proud of is the name of the island, Chesil. This has a few threads coming together. First is probably the most obvious connection—Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, which is a novel of hidden trauma and violence, and was a big influence on those same themes in my work. The second connection is to my home. Portland was settled by whalers and a family of squatters, the Henty family. They named the bay after Lord William John Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, Marquess of Titchfield and fifth Duke of Portland. All of these names are still in use around the town, as streets in particular, tying the place back to an English lord and our colonial history. The Aboriginal names for those same places have been overwritten. I only learned the Aboriginal name for my home, Pinnumbul, in asking local elders for advice about the acknowledgement of country in the front of my book. But the name Chesil is also tied to an English place, the Isle of Portland, which is connected to the English mainland by the 29 kilometres of shingle that is Chesil Beach. It floored me when I realised this connection between the names of my home and McEwan’s novel. Using Chesil as the name for the island seemed like a good way to suggest that same legacy of colonisation in the imaginary space of my book, and at the same time continue for me the underlying connection of it to my home. I wrote Lord William into the opening of the book, as a little nod to the connection. But it also just seemed fitting metaphorically to name my imaginary island after the shifting and unstable connection of a shingle beach.
Image credits: author photo by Jess Gately; horses in Narrawong State Forest, photo by Amy Sylvester; sketch of Chesil island by Kate Noske