The Salt Madonna by Catherine Noske
— review by Jenny Dowell
This is one for those of us who love a crime novel while relishing a beautiful literary style and a touch of the unexplained. As a bonus, this is an Australian novel where the sense of time and place will resonate with readers.
While completing her PhD on the theme of ‘home’ in literature, Catherine Noske started this, her first novel, ten years prior to its 2019 publication.
The novel is set on Chesil, a small imaginary island off the Western Australian coast. The title comes from the large wooden Madonna erected by an early settler at the entrance to the harbour. Hannah Mulvey is a sixth-generation descendant of the settler and grew up on the island. She returns to care for her mother and to take up a teaching position at the small three-teacher Kindergarten to Year 9 school. Hannah’s class of year 7-9 students has amongst its four year 9 students, one girl, 14-year-old Mary.
The people of this small island are linked by history, religion, gossip, secrets and efforts to make a living. The only well-to-do landowner is now growing grapes while there are feeble attempts to attract tourists from across the bay. The sense of ‘home’ and returning to a small remote place of childhood where everyone knows your story, is a fundamental part to the novel.
All the characters are beautifully drawn—from the widowed priest struggling with his loss, Hannah’s dying mother Ellen, the pubescent Mary, and the enigmatic men that surround them.
The novel has been described as Australian Gothic and has a touch of Picnic at Hanging Rock or The Dressmaker about it.
The Salt Madonna is a beautifully structured story with chapters divided by months and their significant Christian days. Hannah is not only the major character but also a diarist who, through her first person brief interjections, reflects 16 years after the events. In those reflections, Hannah struggles with her own ability and hesitancy to tell the story and how her actions could have changed its outcome.
This is one of the best books I’ve read this year and recommend it highly. Like many, I look forward to Catherine Noske’s second novel.
Highly recommended, 5/5
Thanks to the Richmond Tweed Regional Library for sharing book review by Jenny Dowell Link to Book Reviews and Reserving link