My rating: 4 stars
The majority of the short stories in the collection Salt Slow by Julia Armfield have the appearance of being true-to-life, but as we keep on reading, mystical and supernatural elements take over. Those features are used to highlight various human experiences. Several of the stories are metaphors that explore the characters’ feelings, tribulations and distress without resorting to sentimentality.
‘Mantis’, the first story in the collection, sets the mood for what is to come. What seems like a tale about an ordinary teenage girl with a skin condition turns into something much different, more unsettling. When the story comes to an end, much is left to the imagination, which doesn’t diminish its impact.
Women take centre stage in this collection, being often the main characters. In ‘The Collectables’, three friends, who are working on their theses, consider men to be a disappointment. One of them has a solution to the problem. ‘Stop Your Women’s Ears with Wax’ is less disturbing, but it also features many supernatural and mystical elements, which are mixed with the everyday life. Mona joins the crew of a girl-band to film videos for their website. Everyone in the crew is a woman, as are all the fans.
‘The Great Awake’, one of the most imaginative stories, reveals its eccentricity from the outset. In various cities, almost all the inhabitants stopped sleeping, being constantly awake. Their sleep gained a physical form instead. The Sleeps were always near the person they belonged to but couldn’t speak. While this strange situation was developing, the narrator grew closer to Leonie, one of the few people who could still fall asleep. She resented that, though, since she felt left out.
Many of the tales in the collection don’t have a linear timeline. They go back and forward in time. In ‘Smack’, a woman struggles to accept the outcome of her divorce. What led to her current predicament is progressively made clear as we learn more about her past. The eponymous story, ‘Salt Slow’, takes place mostly aboard a boat. A couple is facing an utterly surreal situation, which can be interpreted as a metaphor for parenthood. In ‘Cassandra After’, a girlfriend returns from the death. The writing style is appropriately unnerving.
“It was strange, now, to be able to look right through her in places – the deep places in her throat and ribcage where the skin had worn away to reveal her dark interiors, the opened hollows of her chest.”
One of the most compelling stories in the collection is ‘Granite’, despite not being plot-driven. While the ordinary meets the surreal, the reader becomes immersed in the musings of a woman who, after many years being single, embarks on a relationship with a man whom she loves. Her experiences and feelings are engaging.
In ‘Formerly Feral’, on the other hand, Julia Armfield was not as successful in conveying the tribulations of the main character. The teenage girl that befriends a wolf is not as fleshed out as she could have been. Her ordeals could have been far more impactful.
Salt Slow reveals a great level of creativity. The introduction of bizarre and eerie elements into stories that at first seem to be fully realistic makes the reader ponder on possible metaphors representative of more ordinary situations.