Our unnamed narrator meets Jude, a local antique dealer and washed-up actor, while on vacation with her mother in an isolated Australian coastal town. Jude is forty-two. Our narrator is twenty-four. Jude recognizes her copy of Marguerite Duras’s The Lover. Our narrator is smitten.
And so we embark on a doomed romance serving as the centerpiece of Madelaine Lucas’s debut novel, Thirst for Salt. It’s a relationship that sees the narrator make mistakes familiar to both readers of contemporary fiction and her mother alike, as she pines for an emotionally unavailable man and shuts herself off to the world outside her lover. The only escape she does have from her increasingly insular existence is literature—both in what she reads and in what she writes.
It all might sound familiar: a writerly bildungsroman—a Portrait of an Artist as a Young Woman—complete with its own slew of literary references (Duras, Didion, and Carver are all mentioned) and its own meta-narrative (that is, there’s a writer in the book writing the book). But stick with Thirst for Salt, because after situating the reader in its formulaic premise, it continually subverts its own expectations, building an atmospheric beach-escape of a novel whose central romance seems to exist outside of time: “[Love] makes its own measures,” writes the narrator, “not in minutes or hours or calendar days but in something closer to seasons, or tidal movements.” These tidal movements require some patience, but Thirst for Salt eventually crescendos into a bold and sensual spin on a recognizable story, rejecting melodrama at every turn in favor of realism and authenticity.
Our leading man, Jude, is a ruggedly handsome figure with a “burned-out look around the eyes” and a “bump on the bridge of his nose where it might once have been broken.” Jude possesses a quiet, Marlboro Man masculinity. That, combined with his being eighteen years older than the narrator, makes him hard to trust from the opening pages, and it seems the story is ripe for some kind of emotional or psychological abuse, something in the vein of Stephanie LaCava’s I Fear My Pain Interests You or Megan Nolan’s Acts of Desperation. But Jude, surprisingly, isn’t capable of such cruelty. If the reader is holding their breath in anticipation of his unveiling, they may be holding it a while, as his transgressions are fairly tame.
Thirst for Salt isn’t ultimately about Jude, nor is it about the manipulative tendencies of an older lover. The novel may lead with lust and romantic desire, but it’s fundamentally a story about family—it’s about cyclical family trauma, and about the mutability of familial and romantic relationships.
This is primarily seen through the narrator’s relationship with her mother, who gave birth to her daughter in her early twenties. The father is largely out of the picture, and our narrator finds herself having to fill in the gaps left by his absence: “This is something that happens in small families,” she writes, “roles get confused, relationships do double duty.” This means a “daughter might play the part of an overprotective parent,” or a “mother might rely on the daughter like a partner.” The narrator’s pronouncements here are essential—they point to the kind of fatherly role Jude might be filling, given the age gap, but, importantly, the narrator speaks of occasionally feeling a parental tenderness towards him as well: “[I longed] to have known him as a boy, that somehow I could have taken care of him like a mother and also grown up to be his lover.” The opposite dynamic presents itself in another scene, when Jude expresses concern about the narrator approving of his hypothetical parenting skills: “Oh dear,” he says. “Should I be concerned that my girlfriend finds me fatherly?”
Lucas’s novel, in continually blurring the line between lover and relative, between partner and mother, builds a transgressive, almost Freudian take on the fine lines between different kinds of love. “She let me sleep close against her back and hold on to her as if we were sisters or lovers,” writes the narrator of a close friend, as if there’s hardly a difference between the two forms of intimacy.
These moments will undoubtedly be uncomfortable to certain readers. They delve into potentially taboo territory. But Lucas handles them deftly with crisp, dreamy prose. Her writing manages to be both matter-of-fact and appropriately hazy, like a vivid memory seen through a cloud of fog, adding to the story’s timeless quality. “Love had a way of doing that,” writes the narrator, “it could collapse or rearrange time the way I’d thought only art or memory could.”
Thirst for Salt
By Madelaine Lucas
Tin House Books
March 7, 2023
Michael Knapp's writing has appeared in The Rumpus, The Cleveland Review of Books, The Adroit Journal and elsewhere. He's an MFA candidate at the Writer's Foundry.