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The Salt Letters: A Novel Paperback – July 17, 2001

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 192 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1st American ed edition (July 17, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393321606
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393321609
  • Product Dimensions: 0.5 x 0.1 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,669,327 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In her first novel, Australian writer Balint tells the haunting story of a young woman's 1854 ocean passage from England to "New Holland" in sensuous and fiercely precise prose reminiscent of poet-novelist Anne Michaels. Though detailed in its description of the horrible conditions on immigrant ships, the narrative is less a historical novel than a lyrical rumination on the suffusing, diffusing and enveloping power of both water and memory. Her movements aboard ship restricted by disapproving Matron,who oversees the locked and crowded steerage quarters for unmarried women, Sarah Garnett begins numerous letters to her mother in Shropshire, but never gets farther than the few tantalizingly constrained words that begin each chapter. As the stories of the odd assortment of characters onboard begin to unfold, however, so do Sarah's memories, revealing a family history rife with strange secrets and even stranger women. There's Grandmother Frye, a bold sea-captain's wife who smelled so strongly of fish that she "salted the air around her," and Sarah's own mother, who passed on to Sarah the blueprint of a shameful family "pattern" descending from one generation of women to the next. Elliptical references to Sarah's cousin Richard gradually reveal that he is part of that family weakness; perhaps he is on board ship, having run away with Sarah. This is left teasingly ambiguous, for, as the ship languishes in the stultifying doldrums, Sarah's reminiscences and desires become increasingly fluid and fevered, and the line between her hulled-in present and her past eventually becomes indistinct. While Balint succeeds in conveying a young woman's physical and emotional anguish, sometimes her use of the water metaphor becomes overwrought. Yet the narrative is compelling, and keenly observed details bring immediacy to Balint's imaginative recreation of a harrowing experience.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

In this first novel by Melbourne native Balint, two stories unfold simultaneously: narrator Sarah's journey from England to Down Under and her past life in Shropshire. Inspired by published emigrant diaries and letters, the author evokes the mental confinement of Victorian England's family life and arranged marriages and the physical confinement that Sarah suffers in the passenger ship's steerage. Historical details further conjure passion and aversion amid opposite physical and psychological extremes: tropical heat and Antarctic cold, light and dark, dryness and dampness, confinement and escape. Though rich in atmosphere, the story offers little else, and the writing at times seems indulgently self-conscious: "I seem to be able to eat a small portion of macaroni soup and jelly pudding. How strange to have a flavour other than sickness in my throat." To escape is the only decision Sarah makes, and other events are unrelated gestures. Marginally recommended for public libraries. Elizabeth C. Stewart, Portland, ME
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc.

Customer Reviews

3.5 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
It is 1854, and Sarah flees from the certainty of her home for the uncertainties of life in a new colony in Australia. Sarah and the other unmarried women are confined to steerage where, under the eye of a matron, the journey between Britain and `New Holland' is experienced, shared and endured. Sarah is escaping from the prospect of a conventional arranged marriage. The other women each have stories from the past and hopes for the future. In such a closely confined space with little physical privacy, imagination and memories provide some refuge for Sarah.

`The words of the captain, the ship's husband, stream through the flapping hatchway door and float in the stale air.'

As the ship brings Sarah closer to Australia, she is increasingly haunted by her own story and by her inability to write a letter home to her mother. She longs for her cousin Richard, with whom she is in love, and reflects on the centrality of water and what it represents in her life.

To read this book is to share Sarah's journey and it is not always easy to distinguish reality and imagination. The challenges and squalor of life in such close quarters is a stark reminder of the realities of travel for many emigrating to Australia in the 19th century. The journey rather than the destination is the story, and the conclusion is not completely clear. I would like to think that Sarah made a new life in Australia with Richard, and while this is a possibility it is not a certainty.

`The air has known us all intimately and is tired.'

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By IsolaBlue on July 4, 2001
Format: Paperback
The act of reading does not feel quite the same when one engages with the words of THE SALT LETTERS. There is a feeling of floating that gives Balint's novel a peculiar similarity to the ocean waves that flow through the book. A fascinating resurrection of a long-forgotten time, THE SALT LETTERS tells the story of Sarah, an unmarried immigrant woman traveling from England to Australia in the steerage of a sailing ship. The time is the mid-1800s, and travel by sea is not yet comfortable. Lest we forget this, Balint weaves together one uncomfortable situation after another until we can almost smell the unwashed women in the cabin and begin to check our own hair for lice.
A matron keeps watch over the unmarried women on board and behind each woman is a story. As we learn of life on a vessel under sail, we also discover the simple secrets of the females, the secrets left over from their lives on land.
There is a great deal to compliment about THE SALT LETTERS. The author is very young and the book is a huge accomplishment for someone of her age. She has a way of blending history and poetry so that her novel does not read as historical fiction usually does. She has written something different, a fresh sea air in the midst of current literature. Still, THE SALT LETTERS is not for everyone. The dreamy book floats - under sail as the ship - and will not appeal to those requiring plot-driven novels. Lovers of short stories and poetry will enjoy Balint's work as will those who love nautical history, stories of immigrants, and examinations of women's roles in society. One must be willing to daydream as one reads in order to connect with this novel, however, and a listless, unimaginative reader may not be able to hook into it at all.
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Format: Paperback
While I can't say I hated this book, I can't say I loved it either. The Salt Letters provided an interesting and easily readable account of a girl's escape from family expectations to pursue the love of her life...and to do so required her to travel all the way across the world in a rickety, overcrowded boat. Her experiences are harrowing and the narrative voice is true: you feel Sarah's experiences and sympathize with her.

What I didn't like about the book was that it was written in such a vague way that I couldn't really tell what happened at the end. The narrative weaves the story through both the present and the past, but the ending isn't clear if she's in a dream world from her sickness or if she's healed and will begin her life anew in the "new world." It almost feels as if the author wants the reader to be confused, or that she's being cute in writing a double-meaning ending, but it was unsatisfying for this reader. I didn't like not knowing.

What I did like about the book is how the characters feel real, how you can sympathize with them, how their struggle to survive the miseries of the long boat ride (boredom, discomfort, unsanitary conditions, bad food, lack of privacy, etc.) makes them all feel a little crazy, how the narrative takes on a fantasy tone at times. The playfulness of the narrative was a stark contrast to the actual events of the story, and was, for the most part, done well.
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Format: Paperback
I read this book when it was first published. I was stunned at the perfection of the writing. Every sentence was gorgeously wrought, and the characters were interesting and true to the era. I agree that the overall effect is ambiguous, in keeping with a gothic atmosphere that is uncommon in popular fiction these days, but utterly perfect for the novel's situation. We are used to stories told simply, clearly, and linearly. This has a more leisurely, spiralling pace as a voyage full of hope becomes a hallucinatory and believeable nightmare. My only regret was that Christine Balint didn't have any other published works at the time for me to read. I realize she now has another period book available, Ophelia's Fan, which I look forward to reading! Ophelia's Fan: A Novel
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The Salt Letters: A Novel
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