In the opening lines of Madelaine Lucas’ debut novel, Thirst for Salt, an unnamed protagonist finds herself unusually tethered to memories of a former lover—Jude—when she stumbles across his photograph in an article online. Though the photograph is a reminder of their aging bodies and new roles in life as spouses and parents, it is also a catalyst to recall the details of their past relationship, starting with the summer they first met. It doesn’t take long for her to embody herself as the 24-year-old woman she was back then, remembering what it was like to be the object of a 42-year-old man’s affections:
He looked at me the way he had in the deep—as if he could see through to the core of me, burning away all that was not essential, the way the high noon sun burns up all the water in the morning air. No man had ever looked at me that way before.
This eighteen-year age difference between the narrator and Jude is definitely a focal point throughout the novel, highlighting the discernable gap between their personal life experiences—a whole adolescence, a coming of age. However, there is so much more to be said about the lingering effects this relationship has on the narrator’s life and how the rest of her romantic life stems from it.
When we think of a memory, our first thought may be a single picture or visual recollection of moving images: rites of passage, a family vacation, or any number of “firsts” that impact our life. But like our brains, our bodies also store memory—somatic memory. This intricate landscape of flesh and blood is like a living scrapbook. Not only does this scrapbook document images but sensations, too, that remember the aches of physical exertion, the complexities of trauma, and the delicacies of unbridled pleasure.
An open mouth kiss, the detention of a knotted rope, the exploration of a fervent tongue—these are just a few of my own erotic memories from various stages of young adulthood, now filed away in my body, that came to my mind while reading Lucas’s coming-of-age love story. Not only are these clipped moments sexual in nature and remembered visually as so, but they are also entangled with sensory details and strong emotional ties that are unique to each partner. Thirst for Salt reminded me that there is more to sensual memory than a recollection of thoughts or images. The feeling of one’s hands—or eyes—and the scent of their skin never really leave you.
It’s been more than a decade since their breakup, but there is still something alluring about Jude that transports the woman into her past. Lucas beautifully depicts the narrator’s earliest memories of Jude and how they first met on the Australian coastal town of Sailor’s Beach. On holiday for an entire month with her mother after graduating from college, she simultaneously celebrated and dreaded her impending future. Feeling stuck between the predictable expectations of being a student and uncertainty of adult life post-graduation, the woman finds an unprecedented comfort in Jude’s quaint lifestyle—one that is solely his own. Though there is evident attraction, seduction, and sexual chemistry in the woman’s memories, it is important to note that she was also enamored with Jude’s stability as an older, established man. These memories have faded over the many years they have been apart but are not forgotten by the body of the narrator. Instead, they are cherished, and these sensations are used to piece together the timeline of her romantic life and development as a now-37-year-old woman.
Lucas’s fluid prose is used to capture the turmoil of human desire and the lasting impression of a love story, even years after its end. The imagery of her words are both sensual and heartbreaking at the same time, bringing attention to a young woman’s emotional terrain. It is through stumbling upon Jude’s present-day photograph that the woman begins to navigate her body’s core memories, including tangled sheets and the taste of salt from the ocean air, as well as Jude’s sun-kissed skin that summer. This novel contains several chapters—none of which are named or numbered—shaping the narrative like a large body of water. Sometimes, placid. Sometimes, turbulent. But nevertheless, fluid. Though the structure of these short chapters is minimal, the novel is broken into three larger sections that help organize the phases of the narrator’s short but impactful relationship with Jude. One of the many stylistic choices Lucas uses to amplify the prose is not using quotation marks in any of the dialogue, only adding to the fluidity of her beautiful sentences, like a stream of conscious thought:
I hate that there’ve been others, said Jude, and I was so surprised at the fact of his jealousy that I apologized. Why would he be jealous, I thought, when I had never loved or been loved this way before?
It wasn’t like this, I said. It wasn’t ever like this.
Tell me that you’ve never had anyone else. I want you to pretend.
Okay, I said, laughing. I’ve never been with anyone else. Happy?
Tell me I’m your first, he said, his voice low and his hands moving across my blouse. Tell me that you’ve never been touched.
Jude’s jealousy in this passage is evident, but there is something about the absence of quotation marks and dialogue punctuation that heightens the tension. It makes the conflict more palatable and enticing, yet mysterious, which drives the narrative forward.
Throughout the novel, the narrator is in conversation with her memories from this tumultuous year of passion, as well as motherhood and her female lineage: We wanted to believe, my mother and I, that love could restore what was beyond repair, and if not, at least let us walk around in the wreckage. But because the novel is written with a retrospective point-of-view that emphasizes the past, there is little known about the woman’s present-day life as a mother herself.
Jude’s impact on the woman’s life is the center of the novel, but there is a deeper root to her female ancestry that is studied and referenced throughout it, as well. The narrator studies the behavior of the women who came before her, observing what pre-existing notions about sex, love, and relationships she inherits from them, and she uses blueprints as a metaphor to make sense of it all:
If Jude was a house, I sensed that he held many hidden rooms. He had turned the light on in only one of them, and he’d made me feel so welcome, so warm, that I’d forgotten about all those other places left in the dark.
Though her relationship with Jude was passionate and sexually gratifying—considering her minimal sexual history at the age of 24—there was an absence in their mutual connection that left her feeling insecure, lonely, and unsatisfied. This is a common thread she shares with her mother when it comes to men.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that the narrator is unnamed throughout the novel. She lacks a certain level of agency that seems to only be fulfilled when attached to a man, even when he is indifferent toward her, which is inherently similar to her mother’s romantic relationships no matter how casual or serious they were. She and her mother seem to be estranged from their fathers, experiencing the absence of male role models. The cyclical nature of her intimate relationships comes with unknown desires that do not always present themselves until they are over and stored in the memory of the body:
It never really goes away, the longing for the life not lived, because isn’t that part of how we come to know ourselves too? Through what we lack as much as what we have, all we dream but do not hold. Some desires have no resolution.
I can’t help but think about the narrator’s lack of identity and compare it to something she talks about with Jude near the beginning of the novel. Shortly after she becomes sexually intimate with Jude for the first time, they have a conversation about the weight the “first time” has on a person. The narrator wishes she could fall in love for the first time again and again, a blank slate with each partner—no prior experiences to compare to. But in response, Jude says, that’s the beauty of love. Love erases. Thirteen years later, she recalls her desire to erase pieces of Jude, in addition to herself, in the name of love:
I didn’t know the violence of it then—that erasure. I liked the idea of Jude made into a clean slate for me, my touch negating all others, so sure then I would be the one, to make an indelible mark. I wanted so badly for it to be true. That we might be like two virgins.
The erasure of the body is evident in this passage, the way the narrator wants to cleanse herself and Jude of their sexual blueprints. In my reading, I wonder if the narrator’s lack of agency and elimination of self is an intentional choice or if it is a product of her social conditioning or homelife. But the more I gather, the more I recognize the narrator’s vulnerabilities and how difficult it is to open up the wounds of the past. Because that’s what the past is, wounds of all shapes and sizes inflicted on the body that stay with you forever as scars. Maybe it’s easier to erase than endure.