Saturday, January 3, 2009

Book Review: The Salt Letters by Christine Balint

While I am a few days over my Orbis Terrarum Reading Challenge deadline, I did want to clear the decks for a new Reading Year in 2009, so I have a ninth and final book to review. We travel in the uncomfortable and fetid steerage compartment of a ship bound from England to the wilds of Australia in 1854 with a young woman narrator, Sarah, in Christine Balint's debut novel "The Salt Letters" (NY: W.W. Norton, 2001).

Sarah spends yawning days and nights crowded into a bunk and a small room with a cluster of other unmarried women. Their every move is monitored by a Matron, and they are segregated from all other passengers, except for brief journeys above deck when the weather is fair. Otherwise, it is a hot, dank, smelly and long trip, with nothing but a little needlework and gossip for entertainment.

Sarah's recollections about her life in England, which includes an earthy grandmother, a hydrophobic mother and a forbidden attraction with her cousin Richard, are all very interesting and contrast with the squalor of her sea travels. However, having read even more vivid descriptions of conditions on board ships bound for Australia during the same era in Robert Hughes' wonderful history "The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding", I would more likely recommend the latter to anyone looking for a good book on the subject.

Balint has great descriptive talent, but the plot line weaves in and out like one of the heroine's fevered reveries, and ultimately, I was not entirely sure how the book ended. Was she now married? Was she pregnant? Was Richard on board? Did her mother die? Were they finally arrived in Australia? I just didn't feel that things wrapped up and that Balint could have fleshed things out a bit at the end.

Thus concludes my journey around the world with nine books by nine authors about nine different countries, which included:

* 1) Far Afield, by Susan Kaysen (Faroes Islands)
* 2) The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera (Czechoslovakia)
* 3) The Harafish, by Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt)
* 4) Murder on the Leviathan, by Boris Akunin (Georgia, Russia)
* 5) The Story Teller, by Mario Lllosa Vargas (Peru)
* 6) Talkative Man, by R.K. Narayan (India)
* 7) Balzac & The Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie (China)
* 8) Reef, by Romesh Gunesekera (Sri Lanka)
* 9) The Salt Letters, by Christine Balint (Australia)

"Far Afield" was a-far and a-way my favorite book out of the lot; it was mordantly funny and the characters were well-described in all their glorious eccentricity. A close second and third for "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" and "Reef", where I was transported to exotic locations and moved by the characters' longing for their former lives.

In 2009 I plan to tackle another reading challenge to stretch my personal reading habits, perhaps with a peek at some classic literature or some history. The structure of a reading challenge like Orbis Terrarum helped keep me on track with my goal and certainly, announcing something publicly on this blog, spurred me on to complete my self-assignment. I am glad that I found some new authors to read further and to recommend to my friends and customers and feel a little more well-read having checked these nine new authors out.

Happy New Year!

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