The Blue Salt Road by Joanne M Harris (Illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins)

Publisher – Gollancz

Published – Out Now

Price - £12.99

Passion drew him into a new world and trickery has kept him there.

Bust as he finds his path in a dangerous life, he will learn his notions of home, and his people might not be quite as he believed.

Beautifully illustrated by Bonnie Helen Hawkins, this is a stunning and original modern fairy-tale of love, loss and revenge, against a powerful backdrop of adventure on the high seas and drama on the land.

Most folk tales talk about our relationship with the land, be it on mountains, in caves, forests or under the sea. Various cultures have created their mythologies about who or what lives in the places we don’t and can explain the various dangers or weird things people see. As with any story they also tell us a lot about ourselves too.  In this gorgeous novel Joanne M Harris with the amazing artwork of Bonnie Helen Hawkins creates a new version of a tale based around one of the Child Ballads (ancient folk tales recorded a few centuries ago before the last few storytellers died). In this case the focus is on the sea and the coast and the mysterious people known as selkie who can live in both worlds.

Our nameless lead is the selkie. A young royal within his people always seeking adventure and exploring everywhere despite the warnings of his elders that the Folk (humans) cannot be trusted as they sail the seas and terrorise its inhabitants.  The selkie discovers he can remove his seal skin and pass as a human so can easily explore their homes and fires, but each day stays a little longer.  He meets a young woman named Flora who herself isn’t happy with the idea of just being a fisherman’s wife and the two have a passionate relationship over a few weeks.  But when she realises, she now carries his child she sees there is no way a selkie will want to settle down on land.  She remembers however if she can find his sealskin then she can ensure he stays human and remove his memories of life under the waves.  But will the selkie ever realise what he has lost?

This is a wonderfully flowing tale constantly moving from the selkie’s underwater kingdom to his encounters on the sea with Flora and then following his life after his skin is stolen where Flora’s family decide he would be best used on a whaling ship.  That ship itself is a horror as we see earlier in the novel, he knew these creatures as kin so seeing him unaware of what he is about to do is one of the more troubling parts of the story.  Flora’s father is an accomplished gunner and is keen for the selkie to shed blood.  It’s a tale of various people being trapped into lives they don’t want when everyone believes it is for the best.  The selkie doesn’t know why he is so reluctant to join his crew but as the book progresses, we are reminded that humans can be especially cruel to those we don’t feel fit in.  Underlying this is the realisation that the selkie’s unborn child could end up being christened and at that point would lose their own affinity with the sea.  Across the story we have people who don’t want to be or are trapped in one world and what that drives them to do to others.

As with her companion novel A Pocketful of Crows Harris and Hawkins bring nature to life in this story.  That will be the underwater selkie scenes of this mysterious but joyful community happy to live I the wild but not name it r try to own it; the terror of the whaling ships as crews run hard and fast to slaughter the innocent whale pods or life at a mysterious lighthouse.  The humans of this time see nature as profit and no one thinks these are sentient beings themselves being killed and that imbalance in nature really speaks to our own times. As the story continues, we see there is an ongoing history of how selkie and humans interact, and this has consequences as to how our selkie can survive his nightmare that very subtly gives the whole story that sense of a larger myth going back many years.

Hawkins art is beautiful giving the characters a classic but also modern feel.  Look closely and you’ll see sea creatures in the hair and clothes of characters and there are hints within as to that bigger story that is now unfolding.  They really do make the story come alive in your hands.  Harris’ use of language really does that too and it’s a story which really uses language to give you a sense of momentum and nature ever-mowing.

This is a book perfect for a winter’s day as you read in the evening and probably devour it in one night.  If you enjoy a modern tale on folk tales and just the art of story-telling, then this is definitely one you should pick up soon.

blue salt.jpg