The Salt Madonna by Catherine Noske
On the tiny fictional island of Chesil, something is not right. The presence of Mulvey, the overbearing magnate at the top of the hill, looms over the dwindling community, increasingly troubled by the fall in their local economy.
Hannah’s return to her childhood home is bittersweet. The sense of home and belonging is tempered by her mother’s steep decline. At the local school young love blossoms among Hannah’s students, and the typical rites of passage – sneaking out and drinking – are enacted. Among the ladies of the town, and at the town meetings, there is there is much arguing about the town’s decay. Looking for guidance, the ladies of the town turn to Father John, the charismatic priest.
On Chesil, where everyone knows everything about everyone, the rumour mill begins to buzz at the suggestion of a scandal involving a schoolgirl, and the sudden, miraculous appearance of grapes on the vines. The increasing reliance upon Father John for direction evolves into talk of miracles and redemption. Religious fervour soon takes hold over the community and reaches fever pitch following a violent storm that dramatically alters a local historical landmark, a statue of the Virgin Mary carved by one of the town’s forebears. With the community held in thrall, divisions start to appear between adults and young people alike, and between ‘believers’ and ‘non-believers’.
The Salt Madonna is tense and full of foreboding. Catherine Noske’s writing is (as Gail Jones suggests) lyrical. Passages describing landscape, mood and characters' thoughts are highly evocative. This book echoes themes tackled by a wide range of authors, including Margaret Atwood, Arthur Miller, Mark Brandi, Charlotte Wood, and R.O. Kwon. This is an impressive debut that will have broad appeal to readers.