Title: The Salt God’s Daughter
Author: Ilie Ruby
Publisher: Soft Skull Press
Publication Date: September 04, 2012
Hardcover: 338 pages
Is There a Pooka in This Book?: No, but but there are various references to gnomes, kelpies, and especially waterhorses. (The waterhorse is basically a nefarious, aquatic, Scottish pooka).
Most descriptions of The Salt God’s Daughter say that it’s about three different generations of women. But it’s not, really. Yes, there’s a mother, a daughter, and the daughter’s daughter. But almost all of the story is told from the daughter’s point of view – that middle generation. Her name is Ruth. She and her sister grow up with their single-mother… actually, they mostly grow up without her. Their mother is flighty, temperamental, given to mood swings and bouts of depression. She plays the guitar, she plays with men, they play with her, she follows the moon, drinks like a fish, and craves her freedom. She tells her girls, on multiple occasions, that they’ve ruined her life. She leaves them alone: beach-side, in the middle of a desert, in an employer’s home, to fend for themselves: to starve, to trash-pick, to steal. They love her. They hate her. They crave her love, her validation and acceptance.
They become women, both like and unlike their mother. This is a good chunk of the book: the becoming.
Ruth meets villains, and protectors. She meets a man. She lets down her walls and doesn’t think about protecting herself (which is both good and bad). She becomes a protector of others. She has a daughter, with a webbed foot, whom she names Naida (after naiads, which are water-fairies). Naida, and Ruth, and the reader, all wonder about the man: about his shadows, his lavender bruises, his dripping hair, his home, his family, and his true nature. They also wonder about themselves.
There’s mythology, and folklore, and reality, and art, and botany.
Usually, I play it pretty close to the chest in my opening sentence. I don’t reveal right away whether I loved a book, hated it, or felt somewhere in-between; I try to bring my readers along with me, recounting the journey that I took, from cracking open the front cover to slamming shut the back. Typically, I start with why I picked up the book in the first place: a pretty neutral place to start. Even if I was initially excited, there’s always the potential for disappointment… a little suspense, a little intrigue, a little mystery, a little hope and expectation…
But I can’t do that this time. I can’t make you wait (especially since one of the novel’s themes is how tortuous it is to wait for someone else). This time, before I do anything else, I’ve got to tell you, right away, that I loved The Salt God’s Daughter. I stayed up until 1 o’clock in the morning to finish it — not because I needed to know what happened, and certainly not because I’m a night owl (I’m a rabbit, not a nocturnal bird. We’ve covered this), but because it was so beautiful that I didn’t want to put it down.
I’ve been thinking about how best to describe the prose, and here’s what I’ve come up with: it sort-of reminds me of the Wilco song, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
On the surface-level, the prose & song are similar because they both make me cry; they both break my heart. But it’s deeper than that. It’s the words. They’re gorgeous. They make a kind of sense that you can feel in your bones, and as a whole, you know exactly what both the song and the book are saying. But lyric-by-lyric, sentence-by-sentence, as a listener and reader, I’d sometimes find myself lost. What’s an “American aquarium drinker”? What’s a “quiet domino” and why would you bury it? How can lightning be tongue-tied? What is a “pomegranate of stars”?
The thing is: it doesn’t matter. It’s how the words sound together. It’s the mood they evoke. It’s the shape of the letters and how they make you feel. Both artistic expressions are striving to describe something pretty senseless: the complexity of love – in times when it’s there and times when it’s not. Rejection. Vulnerability. Desire. Fumbling.
I don’t always know what Jeff Tweedy means. I didn’t always know what Ilie Ruby meant. Sometimes her sentences were full of emotion, and crashing & tinkling sounds, but their meaning was unclear. Sometimes her characters would disappear in one paragraph and come back in the next, with no explanation of where they’d gone. But in spite of the unintelligible bits (or maybe because of them, because such is life), I’m so happy (and sad) that they’re both trying to say the unsayable. That they’re trying to speak souls.
I went into this review wanting to say everything – wanting to list every, single thing that I loved (without giving anything away). But I think, unexpectedly (for me, too!), that I’m going to do the opposite. I’m going to say very little. I’m simply going to list some of the things that the book includes:
* a woman painting a man in the nude
*The Shekhinah (the Jewish word for the female essence of God)
*purple feathered earrings
*the sharp, violent death of a sea lion
*the loss of innocence
*the strawberry moon
*sea green eyes
*a constellation of freckles
I went into the text expecting to read something that might fit into the “Mermaids” month for the Paranormal Reading Challenge. I don’t know if what I read fit, strictly-speaking. It’s not “a mermaid book.” It’s not “a kelpie book” or “a siren book.” It’s unclassifiable and beyond genre. (What it definitely is, though, is not for children. This is an adult book. This isn’t to say some teens aren’t mature enough to handle it, but it deals with some really hard, gritty, ugly topics). But I have no regrets. Ultimately – challenges, blog posts, and book reviews aside -, my goal is to read stories that enrich my days and my nights. The Salt God’s Daughter did that. I was thrilled to be reading it, and now I’m thrilled to be reviewing it — fittingly, under a moon that would have delighted Ruth’s mother: the Blue Moon.
Like the moon, Ruby’s story is rare, and big, and bright. It has scars. But it’s worth reaching for.
Pooka Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Nibbles