Silver & Salt
Elanor Dymott (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)
We first encounter ruthie as a ‘childishly thin’ adult, spying through binoculars on a girl being bullied by her father and brother at a neighbouring Greek villa. We spend a tense few days with ruthie in Greece, while the other strand of the novel’s double narrative takes us back to her childhood, where we learn why ruthie must remind ‘herself that this sense she has of the two of them being very close to one another is no more than a trick of the light’.
ruthie and her sister Vinny are the children of glamorous photographer Max and sophie, a budding opera singer who gave up her career to have children. their early years were spent at Max’s country house, with sophie struggling to balance the joy of her daughters against the bitterness of thwarted creativity and the loneliness of a solitary motherhood—max is mostly absent, working, travelling and philandering.
When a third pregnancy results in a boy ‘cut, still, from his mother’, sophie can’t endure it. ‘it was my body, his grave,’ she tells Max, before tipping over the edge into madness, and the family shatters into painful fragments.
A whisper of salvation seems to appear for ruthie when her father agrees to teach her photography, but the lessons don’t go well. Max’s cruelty and impatience rapidly surface and his daughter’s smallest mistakes prompt his shouting at and hitting her.
Much of the novel is taken up with photography’s technical details, especially developing negatives—an intriguing metaphor for understanding ruthie’s own development. ‘so you couldn’t turn me into a photograph?’ ruthie asks her father in the darkroom, as her myriad scars of physical and psychological damage begin to form.
Silver & Salt is a compelling and complicated exploration of hurt in its many manifestations, and our ability—or inability— to withstand it. Emily Rhodes