Ashes to Ashes

A family reels from tragedy in debut novel The Salt House.


The Salt House by Lisa Duffy
Published by Touchstone, 304 pages, $16

In this debut novel, the death of baby Maddie is the start of a family’s torment. Then her father, Jack, a Maine lobsterman, has his territory invaded by old buddy Finn, who’s returned to these waters seeking fish—bad timing. Meanwhile, mother Hope, in grief, has to abandon the column she writes for a parenting magazine. She and Jack have disagreements over Maddie’s ashes; a year after her daughter’s death, Hope still isn’t ready to scatter them. Remaining daughters Kat, 8, and Jess, 16, have their own sisterly sparrings. And Kat remains unaware that Maddie died after swallowing the locket from her necklace, which had slipped from Kat’s neck into her sister’s crib as they played.

Much of the wild energy of Duffy’s novel arises between Jack and Finn, whose motors roar as they betray and attack each other. Mysterious past conflicts play a part; Jack’s angry tension only makes things worse. But then, from out of the darkness comes some surprising grace. Finn’s stepson Alex falls for Jess, and her analysis of every word between them is deliciously true to young love. Alex’s decency—he seems more the grownup as he talks to Jack—suggests that the younger generation can improve on the older one. And Boon, the steady friend to Finn and Jack, adds balance and sanity.

The tale gains texture from alternating voices—defensively belligerent Jack with his locked-in grief, heartbroken Hope, the cheeky girls slowly learning from their everyday stumblings. Many conflicts remain unspoken as they try to trudge on with their lives. But secrets revealed and the tenderness of memory eventually bring the wounded family together again.

From page 214: I couldn’t bring myself to touch it, knowing the smell of the blanket would gut me. The softness of it against my cheek would bring me to my knees. The thought of her wrapped in it, fresh and clean out of her bath, would put me on the floor.

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