Book review: Salt On Your Tongue, by Charlotte Runcie

THIS is a lyrical, impassioned and curious book. It is subtitled 'Women and the Sea' '“ almost a retort to the unmentioned Hemingway and his The Old Man And The Sea. It enfolds many of the tropes and themes that have dominated recent non-fiction. It is as much a diary as it is a memoir, since it charts the period over which the author discovered she was pregnant, how her body and feelings change over this time and the experience of becoming a mother.

Charlotte Runcie

In this respect it has similarities to my former colleague Chitra Ramaswamy’s Expecting and Hollie McNish’s Nobody Told Me. But it is also a book about the natural world, and like many such works – Helen Macdonald’s H Is For Hawk, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Malachy Tallack’s Sixty Degrees North and Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder – the natural and the elegiac, a sense of grief in the wild, permeates the work. In this case we have memories of a grandmother who was not, it seems, particularly an out-doorsy type, but was a lasting influence.

The binding strand is elegantly done: there were sea-shells on her grandmother’s bathroom window-ledge, and Runcie developed a love of collecting shells, sea-glass and other things found on long walks on lonely beaches. It ties the book together – the shell-like, shrimp-like creature immersed in amniotic fluid, the links between generations of women, the simple harshness of nature, whether the waters are breaking over a harbour or down your legs. It is a book which has clearly been carefully choreographed, despite being about the accidental, the sudden and the merely found.

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As with many books in this genre, the natural and the cultural are fused. As much as it is about the shores of East Lothian or the machairs of Argyll or the beaches of St Monans, it is about how we have narrated the sea. As such it takes in Shakespeare, Coleridge and, most significantly, Homer. The book is divided into chapters each dedicated to one of the Pleiades constellation, the goddesses by whom sailors navigated the wine-dark sea. It sent me scrambling back to my copy of The Greek Myths by Robert Graves. The way Runcie connects star, sea, shore and indeed, inland, is done exceptionally gracefully. Homer wrote much about those on the ocean, and a lot about the dangerous women he met on his travels. This connects the book to another concern, a slightly defensive feminism therein. Many of us, cursed with an X-Y chromosome, have known all our lives that women can be creative and ingenious and geniuses. The songs of Sirens and the lure of mermaids or a Botticelli vision of Aphrodite: all myths and myths that I believe we have grown out of, but they persist in ways both dangerous and minatory.

The very best parts of Runcie’s work are about shanties. I always love a book that teaches me something about which I knew nothing; so to learn about Stan Hugill, a mercurial figure who collected shanties, went to sea at a very young age, and then in an enterprising way capitalised on his life story (or what he said was his story) was a joy indeed. Runcie weaves in her own time singing shanties in Edinburgh folk bars, while acknowledging that the songs themselves were designed for work. Her coyish note in her author biography says that she “has a secret past as a poet”, but her interpretation of the rhythm and camber of the verses shows she has not wholly left that past behind. Her writing on the singing of the verses is quite remarkable; that not just the voice but the mouth must shape itself to the sounds.

There are some odd exceptions in the book. When I read the subtitle, and as I read her impassioned defence of female creativity, I kept thinking – sooner or later we must be coming to Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, where Lily Briscoe only becomes the artist she is because of a sea-crossing. Or Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, where the frustrated ambitions of the first Mrs Rochester are played out against an azure ocean. Or even perhaps Stevie Smith, with the famous “Not Waving, But Drowning”, a suitably heart-sore poem, with an undertow of weird, otherworldly optimism.

To write a book about everyone who has written about the sea would be an undertaking worthy of some 19th century encyclopaedist, perhaps in the encrusted, salty vein of Casaubon in Middlemarch, so omissions are forgivable, even if the chime between the ideas seem clear.

Salt On Your Tongue manages to pun brilliantly: the littoral – where the women are left – and the literal – where they are told they must stay. Being “beached” is another clever awareness of language. In between there are divagations (not navigations) on topics such as starfish, tide-clocks and the etymology of the word drowned (Runcie, by the way, is very good on the subtleties of Anglo-Saxon poetry).

It is, in its own way, a treasure. Most importantly, it made me very intrigued to see what she writes next.

Salt On Your Tongue, by Charlotte Runcie, Canongate, 14.99