(2018) Joanne M. Harris, Gollancz, £12.99, hrdbk, 215pp, ISBN 978-1-473-22221-2
"...a story of change, betrayal, and forgiveness. But most of all of love..."
The Blue Salt Road is a novella by Joanne M. Harris in the style of her earlier work A Pocketful of Crows. Although the stories are unconnected, the books themselves are lovely to look at and hold: unjacketed, metallic embossed hardbacks with beautiful illustrations throughout.
The story feels like a folk tale that has been around forever, telling of selkies who can remove their skin and take human form, of men trapped into marriage by devious women and children who lost their heritage. The narrative feels familiar with an easy rhythm that washes against you like the sea in the tale itself.
Flora McCraieann dreams of a dark Prince to marry her and she looks towards the sea to find him. Meanwhile a young, male selkie is fascinated with the land and sees beauty in the folk that other sea dwellers dismiss as cruel and bloodthirsty. Needless to say, they are drawn together and perhaps the consequences of this are inevitable.
The tale questions the nature of identity, asks if we define ourselves by our place in society, by our relationships with others. Flora is desperately worried about becoming an old maid, of not finding someone to call her "wife". She considers any possible match in the terms of how it would place her at church, in the social pecking order of other wives, she is prepared to risk a lot to get where she wants to be. The Selkie tries hard to fit in with his father in law and the crew of the Kraken, but he struggles with their unfamiliar ways and possible harsh consequences for not doing so.
Identity can also be considered in more internal ways, the labels that we choose for ourselves, in this case, man, folk, selkie, but real-world analogies exist also. When the Selkie loses his memory he forgets his clan, his family, his very identity and yet there was a part of him that could not accept the identity that Flora gave him, even without knowing why things felt wrong and even disgusted him in ways he could not explain. His identity was still a part of him no matter how much was stripped from his understanding.
The question also remains, if we do not truly know ourselves, can we ever really love another? It is only when the Selkie regains his memory that he can consider his feeling for Fiona.
We see the wisdom that comes with age, both in the warnings of the Selkie's mother and in the advice of Flora's grandmother, but we also see what little heed the younger generation take of their words. Perhaps a dynamic familiar to many families.
This is a truly charming book in many ways, the presentation and the tale itself. Joanne Harris proves once again that she effortlessly transcends genre boundaries. If you enjoy folk tales in any format you should consider adding this one to your collection.
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