Part memoir, part nature book, part social commentary, The Salt Path kind of fails to be any one thing. Had it not had a local interest for me, I am not sure that I would actually have finished it! The local section came – obviously – towards the end. It was a Sunday Times best seller and shortlisted for the 2018 Costa Book Prize so maybe there is more in it than I saw…
The novel follows the plight of the narrator, Ray and her peculiarly named husband Moth who appear to be living an idyllic pastoral lifestyle in the countryside, having restored a farm, founded a guesthouse and created a family. And following a bad investment on the advice of a friend, and a protracted legal battle, lost everything. Well, except the family. Not even lawyers take children for payment.
The legal battle was the first wrinkle in the book for me. As an ex-lawyer, I know how much leeway is given to a litigant in person: I would be very surprised if the events played out they way they were described. It is possible, I know. It is not incredible. But the image of a judge ordering something as severe as possession of the defendant’s home within seven days, whilst compelling evidence that that judgment is incorrect sits on the bench before him is a strain… and that did colour the rest of my reading.
And on top of that, simultaneously with that, Moth is diagnosed with corticobasal degeneration,
a rare degenerative brain disease that would take the beautiful man I’d loved since I was a teenager and destroy his body and then his mind as he fell into confusion and dementia, and end with him unable to swallow and probably choking to death on his own saliva. And there was nothing, absolutely nothing they could do about it.
So, contrary to all medical advice – which appeared to have consisted of a prescription for Pregabalin and the advice “Don’t tire yourself, or walk too far, and be careful on the stairs” – and apparently on the spur of the moment whilst hiding under the stairs from the bailiffs, Ray and Moth decide to walk the South West Coast Path. 630 miles of it. With limited preparations or equipment, without the Pregabalin, with no money, no income, no support. Literally walking away from their problems. Without the illness, I could have seen that as something noble and inspiring but, I’m sorry, with an untreatable debilitating and degenerative disease, it was stupid. It was reckless. It was dangerous. And a potentially dangerous message to others with that diagnosis.
And we get moments like this one
Moth was stumbling more often and for the first time tripped and fell, grazing his arm and leaving him shaken.
‘I’ve got to stop. Can you get the water?’ He drank, trying to satisfy an unquenchable thirst, until there were only two inches of water left. We’d filled the bottles in the bar in Westward Ho! and used most of it overnight, but now were quite some distance from a tap, unless we diverted inland in the hope of knocking on someone’s door.
‘Shall we carry on? It looks like we’ll cross a stream near Babbacombe Cliff.’
We shuffled on, as Moth got slower and I became increasingly anxious. By the time we crossed the dry stream bed, the afternoon had become a burning shimmer. No shade, no trees, just cliff top, sea and sky. At three o’clock Moth dropped his pack and lay on the ground.
‘I’m done, I’m just done. I can’t do this. I feel shivery…’
Moth was shivering, but burning hot, his joints aching and feeling nauseous.
‘What if this is it, what if I’m dying?’
Rarely do I want to shout at a book in frustration! But this!
And – spoiler alert – he doesn’t die at that point which is only chapter six of twenty-one. In fact his condition just seems to disappear over the course of the walk. It’s referred to occasionally and seems to have a return when he stops walking over the winter, but he generally appears to have a miraculous recovery. And that condition is never resolved. Was the diagnosis wrong? What was the medical response to its apparent remission whilst walking? How many people with CBD are now reading this book and throwing away their Pregabalin because, hey, Moth just stopped taking it and he got better.
I mean, he seemed like a really nice fellow, Moth, and I hope he is okay because this is autobiographical and he is a real person, but it left a significant part of the book unresolved. Not even the running joke that he was repeatedly mistaken for Simon Armitage helped!
The walk itself is massive and runs from Minehead in Somerset to Poole in Dorset, via Land’s End. The map of it looks like this :
A lot of gorgeous landscapes and countryside and history to see … most of which is skipped over with rather repetitive comments about how hungry they are, how wild Ray’s hair is, how sick one or the other of them become, how little money they have. Apparently, according to this book, a pack of noodles and sharing a pack of wine gums covers all the food groups! Occasional treats of a bag of chips; occasional choices between food and buses. And several instances of trespassing and theft. And public defecation.
The occasional slips into travelogue mode were interesting enough, but felt rather shoe-horned into the memoir. Just one example might be, locally to me, Chesil Beach – also the title of a great Ian McEwan book, by the way!
Chesil Beach isn’t a beach at all, but a fifteen-metre-high, eighteen-mile-long bank of pebbles, running from the Isle of Portland in the east to beyond West Bay in the west. Believed to have been formed during a period of rising sea levels, this stretch of stones honed perfectly round through millennia of movement by the force of the sea is known as a barrier beach, or a tombolo. The pebbles are fist-sized near Portland, but only the size of a grape at West Bay, possibly showing that they were picked up from two separate pebble beds and then deposited here by the rising sea at the point of the breaking waves. Inland of the bank is the Fleet Lagoon, a tidal lagoon, cut off from the sea but still subject to its ebb and flow, as Portland is to the mainland. At Ferrybridge in the east, where the sea pushes in, the waters of the lagoon are saline, but at its western end, where freshwater streams feed in, the salinity is reduced by half. A vast area of land and sea in motion together, a never-ending partnership in which each of the couple loses and gains in equal measure, but neither can exist without the other.
It was easy walking alongside the lagoon, hazy sunlight and post-sickness frailty making the day dreamlike. Tiny huts scattered the landward side of the pebble bank and occasional rowing boats were pulled up beside them.
“Believed to have been formed… a barrier beach, or a tombolo… the salinity is reduced…”. The language jars a little with all these passive voices and technical terms, which are otherwise absent from the page. Almost like a schoolgirl copying and pasting a paragraph from Wikipedia into their essay.
And the social commentaries about homelessness are the same. An important issue, absolutely, the social conditions which give rise to homelessness, the taboos around homelessness, the myths and assumptions about the homeless. When recounting specific people’s reactions to the news that Ray and Moth were homeless – the embarrassment, the fear, the revulsion and disgust, the pity – the book worked. When injecting an entire chapter (Chapter Four, Rogues and Vagabonds) of research from Crisis, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, government statistics and statute law from 1381 and the Peasants’ Revolt to the Vagrancy Acts of 1744 and 1824 to the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act of 2014, it felt a little obvious. And alien. And a little… preachy.
So, yes. Maybe it’s just me. But I didn’t like this book as much as the raft of 5* reviews on Goodreads might suggest.
Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐
Date: 31st January 20i19