A review of salt slow by Julia Armfield
Every now and then I read a book and wonder where it has been all my life. Julia Armfield’s salt slow is one such volume: a collection of short stories so dazzling, so powerful, so unutterably brilliant that it has – in the small yet not insignificant way books have of doing this – knocked my world sideways just a little bit.
First published in 2019, with the paperback released earlier this year, salt slow couldn’t really have been in my life much longer than it already has been. All the same, I wish I had encountered Armfield’s writing earlier. The collection of nine stories, which won her a place on The Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year shortlist in 2019, is a gothic marvel, a series of characters and occasions that are as ghastly as they are moving and, in a strange way (especially given the events of today’s world), not entirely improbable.
Take ‘The Great Awake’, the second tale in the collection and recipient of the 2018 White Review short story award. It’s a story of collective insomnia, in which the inhabitants of cities in particular find themselves suddenly unable to sleep. Instead, Sleep becomes the term for a ghoulish figure that emerges from the body and trails people throughout the course of their days, making mischief in the background and taunting them as a physical reminder of the fact that they cannot close their eyes to rest. It’s fantastical, of course, but also scarily imaginable. Armfield sets her stories in parallel worlds so closely aligned with the real one that it only takes a tiny leap of faith to find ourselves installed in them.
Although I enjoyed the first story, ‘Mantis’, it was ‘The Great Awake’ that did it for me, making me hungry for the stories that followed and curious to see what Armfield’s imagination could conjure next. It’s relatively impossible to describe these stories adequately – you really need to read them for yourself – but other favourites included ‘Formerly Feral’, in which the narrator grows up with a wolf as a step-sister; ‘The Collectables’, an almost-reimagining of Frankenstein in which two young women watch with mild alarm as their housemate begins to assemble a ‘perfect’ man in the cellar; and the titular ‘salt slow’, which sees a young couple adrift in a boat after a great rainstorm appears to have drowned the world. This last one I found incredibly moving – it aches with a sense of all that has been lost – but in each story there is surprising tenderness hidden beneath the rather outrageous exterior.
Julia Armfield holds a Masters in Victorian Art and Literature, which came as no surprise to me – her stories definitely seem to be pervaded by a Victorian appreciation of all things otherworldly. ‘Ineradicably ghoulish’ are the words the narrator of ‘Formerly Feral’ uses to describe her father’s imagination, but they may as well be Armfield’s self-portrait in ink. It surprises me a little to write this, because in general I am not a fan of the horror genre (whether in literature, film or any other medium), yet the uncanny in salt slow is too well managed to be properly scary. Yes, the stories often made me shudder, but in exactly the right way: a shiver of uncomfortable recognition rather than genuine fright.
One of the major aspects of Armfield’s writing that I think may be partly responsible for this is her great attachment to the corporeal. salt slow seems first and foremost to be a collection of stories about bodies – emotions, especially yearning, vengefulness, love and loneliness, are important too, but not the primary concern here – and each tale is built on a solid foundation of human skin, fingernails, hair, tears and teeth. It is a visceral, unembarrassed approach to writing, and even though I sometimes found myself feeling slightly revolted, I couldn’t help but admire the bravery it shows, the unflinching desire to look at what is really there. Beneath the papery covering of the fantastical and mildly horrific – the elements of these stories that will leap out and grab you – Armfield seems to be saying that we are all human, all in this together. All faintly disgusting in exactly the same ways.
salt slow is a dark book, but that is precisely what sets it free. An extraordinary feat of imagination, it is vivid, magical and utterly compelling. In ‘The Great Awake’, the narrator observes that ‘people seemed to speak more freely in the night-time – a strange release of inhibitions’, and that is exactly what this book does. An ‘ineradicably ghoulish’ collection of ideas, yes, but also a chance for Armfield to tell us some disconcerting truths about the human experience, ‘knitting words across words like a net beneath the tightrope night’. To read salt slow is to be exhilarated, startled, breathless with the possibility of all there is to be imagined.
I do not think it is an exaggeration to say that, having read salt slow, life for me will be a little bit different from now on. This is one of the points of reading, after all – finding books that expand your outlook, broaden your horizons, push the limits of your comfort zone that little bit further. salt slow has made me see the world around me, the experience of living and my own creative endeavours through refocused eyes. It’s an infinitesimal adjustment in the grand scheme of things, but all the same, it is there. ‘The surface of the world is thinner in certain places’, writes Armfield – and yes, she is right, I know what she means. I have found one of those very places myself: among the pages of her mesmerising debut.