Monday, May 1, 2023

Review: The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw

 A deeply bizarre and grisly love story about freedom and choice. And an alarming amount of murder.

My initial response to finishing this novella was "what the fuck did I just read?", and I stand by that assessment... but in a positive way. It's a deeply peculiar book, and one that's somewhat hard to describe when dragged outside the confines of the story.

It's a reimagining of the little mermaid, but... after the story...

A mermaid and a plague doctor go on a journey, both haunted by the darkness of their pasts...

What if the really important part of the little mermaid was the murderous revenge she got on the entire kingdom...?

Creepy woodland child-cults are never a good sign! Do not trust them, even if you're functionally immortal...

All of these are perfectly reasonable ways of talking about the story. Essentially, we meet up with a mermaid after her offspring have devoured the kingdom of the prince who married her in her revenge, when a mysterious plague doctor sort of kind of invites her to come with them, wherever they're headed to, seemingly unphased by the total carnage she's caused. On their way to wherever they're going, they come across a group of children hunting one of their number in the woods, a chance encounter that leads down a dark and bloody path to the plague doctor's history, and the mermaid's future.

But even this does not give a true sense of what the story is, because it's one of those stories which simply refuses to be confined to its plot. It's not about what happens, but how. And the how is vividly, lusciously, darkly, incredibly gorily, sumptuously and intensely overwrittenly, in the best possible way. It is a story I devoured, simply and precisely because the prose was delicious.

It goes in hard right from the first paragraph, which includes:

I pause. In the penumbra, the fading dusk gorgeted by coral and gold, you could be forgiven for mistaking the ruined house a ribcage, the roof its tent of ragged skin. The foundation, at a careless look, could pass for bones, the door for a mouth, the chimney a finger crooked at the sky, or at a wife who would not be a saviour.

And if anything, it only goes in harder as the story goes on.

This is the core of this novella's appeal in my opinion - if you like that level of intricate prose construction (and don't mind the grisly nature of the story), you will probably enjoy it immensely. If, however, you don't, or prose just isn't an interest or priority for you, this might be one that passes you by.

What's interesting about that, at least for me, is that I tend to prefer my stories to be character driven. And this isn't, really. We see a lot of the characters, but they are often opaque to each other and to us. We see through the mermaid's eyes, hear her thoughts, and yet even then she is remote and cold. Which is by design - she's meant to be alien, a creature living in our world but not of it, born of the chilly abyss of the sea, and hungry and uncaring and vengeful from it. So we see her, we spend the time growing to know her very well, and yet she remains cut off from us emotionally, by her very being. Where the prose is overwritten, the emotions are understated, the stuff of hints and shared looks leading to shared understanding, left for the reader to parse or not.

And as we progress through the story, it becomes clear how deliberate this is.

Because while it isn't all of what the story is, or is about, some of it is the story of someone who has been stripped of agency, of personhood, and who has exacted her revenge, but is still living with the legacy of what was done to her by a man who wanted to own her. Who told stories about her that misled the world about her nature. Who cut out of her tongue so she couldn't tell her own stories to counter them. So the fact that our access to her is at arm's reach feels especially fitting. We will know her as she wants us to know her, and no more, because she deserves that choice now.

We know the plague doctor, at least at first, at an even further remove. They speak little, and their emotional responses are something of a mystery to the mermaid, and so they are to us, through her interpretation. And while we never really get a deep sense of them through their words and perspective, we do begin to see the plague doctor as a deeply emotional person through their actions. It is more their story than the mermaid's, really, though it is told through her eyes.

But the two go together, as both of them are people who had their choices taken away from them, and were made into something else by people who had the power to do what they liked. Where the mermaid responds to this with bloody vengeance, the plague doctor has chosen kindness and healing, at least for now. What they feel about the mermaid's choices remains hidden to us, behind their mask and the mermaid's incomprehension of human feeling.

And so at its core, it's a story of two people who've suffered the greatest of injustices against their persons, and how they choose to live beyond that, how they respond to it, and how they relate to each other in the wake of their shared and different experiences. Because whatever emotion there is or is not in how we see them each through the mermaid's eyes, what there plainly is is fellowship, right from the start, and that link is such an appealing one, such a lovely one, that it keeps you invested through all the grisly body horror that comes with it.

I'm normally too much of a wuss for this kind of darkness, but in this, I didn't mind it. The writing transforms it into something beautiful at key moments, and the core dynamic between the two main characters makes it worthwhile even when it isn't beautiful. It makes a very strange, dark story, all told, but one whose wonder lies in that strangeness. It ends up with the feel of some old, dark fairy tale we don't tell anymore, where nothing is explained, a lot of people get murdered, and if there's any moral at all, it's not a gentle one. But sometimes those are exactly what you want, and this does it brilliantly.


The Math

Highlights: beautiful, intricate, grisly prose; unapologetically brutal protagonist

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

Reference: Cassandra Khaw, The Salt Grows Heavy, [Titan Books, 2023]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea