Review: The Salt Madonna by Catherine Noske, by Jess Gately

Title: The Salt Madonna
Author: Catherine Noske
Publisher: Picador Australia
Genre: Thriller, literary fiction

This review was first published in the Underground zine, issue 30: Thriller

‘Faith has preconditions in need and hopefulness. It doesn’t re-quire actual hope, just willingness for it, and the need for change. We all of us had need.’
Written with a distinct Australian Gothic bent, The Salt Madonna also embodies elements of literary fiction with its lyrical prose and careful consideration. Just as the story itself is multilayered, so are the themes that Noske explores within them. Faith, family, masculinity and colonialism are just some of the ideas explored in this tale of an isolated community caught up in collective mania.
While this may be Noske’s debut novel, her experience as a writer and editor shows in the complexity of this book. The stylistic and structural decisions are not easily pulled off and it would not surprise me to see this book on award lists later this year.
Hannah Mulvey returns home to the remote island community of Chesil, taking up a teaching position at the local school, to look after her dying mother. The island is falling on hard times and the people are becoming desperate—desperate enough to latch on to anything that might give them hope.
There is a deliberate vagueness in the blurb of this book that I feel is impossible to replicate in a review if I am to speak about it honestly and openly and give you a true idea of its plot and so, fair warning, from here on, some plot points will be revealed though nothing that I would count as a spoiler.
14-year-old Mary, a girl in Hannah’s class, stops coming to school. Hannah soon learns that the girl has fallen pregnant. But rather than an investigation into how the underage girl became pregnant, the town is instead swept up in the idea of an immaculate conception when ‘miracles’ begin to occur. Hannah watches on in disbelief and varying levels of denial as the town, believing that Mary’s pregnancy is a divine gift sent to save them, descend into distressing levels of fanaticism and cult-like behaviour.
While the majority of the book is written in third-person omniscient and from multiple points of view, the reader is reminded constantly that this is Hannah’s retelling of the story through short snippets of first-person at the beginning or end of each chapter. It is her reimagining of how things happen and so, by there is a sort of whiplash feeling as we are sucked into the ‘truth’ of the story only to be brought back to sharp reality that it is all only speculation. The reader is given the sense that Hannah is writing this story as a means of trying to come to terms with what happened, deciphering her role in the community at that time and trying to ascertain how much of the blame for what happened lays with her.
While there is a definite who-dunnit feeling to this book, the question of who actually got Mary pregnant becomes as secondary to the reader as it does to the town. While there is a desire to know who she fell pregnant too and under what circumstances, a large part of the compulsion to keep turning pages is in seeing how long the town will continue to buy into the miracle and just how fanatical they will become. As a reader, we’re guided to be drawn towards the madness so that we are floored by the question when it comes up again. It feels like a deliberate decision on Noske’s part, to draw attention to the ways in which we are guided away from talking about underage pregnancy and sexual assault cases. Discussion around these topics seems to veer off into other agendas and problems without ever actually addressing the crux of it.
Throughout the book, Noske draws attention to the ways that the women are silenced and driven into roles of servitude. Hannah has been called away from her own life to return and take on the care of her mother, and Mary begins as an object belonging to her family before becoming a vessel for the towns hopes and desires. In other moments we also see Mrs Keilor (one of the main band of church women) who is trapped in an unhappy marriage to a man who all but neglects her, and the Priest’s wife who has recently passed away but appears to him regularly as a spectre of sorts guiding him and comforting him. All these women are all ultimately silenced, Hannah by her label as an ‘outsider’, Mary (who quite literally stops talking) by her youth, Mrs Keilor by her mar-riage, and the Priest’s wife by way of her death (which, perhaps tellingly, was from an asthma attack which robbed her of her breath and her ability to speak in her final moments).
Like any excellent work of lit-erary fiction there is so much that can be taken away from this novel. I haven’t even touched upon the exploration of colonialism, I’ve barely touched upon faith and I haven’t even had time to discuss the anxiety it induced in me, but alas my word limit is up. Noske has written something beautiful, terrifying and haunting. Her descriptions of the landscape are vivid, her characters are flesh and bone, and her writing is lyrical. If you’re a literary fiction lover, this is a must for your TBR pile. If you like Australian Gothic, I think you’ll be hooked.

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