Now available in paperback, Salt Slow is the debut publication from award-winning author Julia Armfield, comprised of nine short stories which mix the mythic and the fantastic with the everyday, telling tales of women and their experiences in society, with bodies and the bodily, with isolation, obsession and love.
Below, Gavin from our Marketing team picks nine short excerpts from the book to demonstrate the themes and language of the collection.
This is a book that's been passed around our office since we first got our tentacles on an advance copy. Nine distinct but overlapping stories of womanhood, adolescence, invertebrate life (yes!) and the uncanny, all told with a deft hand at understatement and an exceptional strength of writing.
Instead of us showcasing one story in its entirety, I’ve pulled an excerpt from each of the nine shorts below that highlight in different ways what for me make Salt Slow a must-read, and Julia Armfield an author to expect big things of.
“When I was twenty-seven, my Sleep stepped out of me like a passenger from a train carriage, looked around my room for several seconds, then sat down in the chair beside my bed.”
This, the first line from 'The Great Awake', is pure Kafka: ‘An uncanny thing happened but I’m going to reel it off like an emotionless report as if it’s not uncanny to underscore how really uncanny the whole thing is.’ I’m a big fan of this approach, and of the ability of a short story to explore a concept, a single change to the quo, and in so doing weird the world as we know it.
It’s a bit of a misnomer to start with this comparison, but one of the things I enjoy most about the collection is the strength of its central conceits—albeit fleshed out in entirely different ways. This story, set in a world in which almost everyone becomes insomniac and their slumbers manifest as ghost-like figures, won last year’s White Review Short Story Prize.
“Of course, my Father’s new wife was not keeping her wolf as a pet or a working animal, but rather as a daughter, which rendered much of the reading I did around the time of the wedding unnecessary. The day they moved in, she dressed the wolf in a blue pinafore dress she described as its special occasions outfit and presented me with a copy, in my size, which my Father suggested I change into before helping with the unpacking.”
One of the joys of going back through the collection is discovering how many paragraphs work by themselves, as standalone stories. This one—from 'Formerly Feral'—is a great example, in which Armfield demonstrates great economy but no sign of austerity: in two sentences are a world, rich and rampantly fertile, teeming with narrative nods shooting off in numerous directions like one of Lydia Davis’s super-shorts. You could print this on art paper and sell it.
“It is only at a noise from the stern, a grunt followed by the scraping of some heavy object being lifted, that she manages to raise her head. As if from a great distance, she sees the way he is standing and what he is about to do to the thing between them. She opens her mouth to protest and finds her tongue too deeply bitten to cooperate. He has clubbed things before — large fish and great grey moray eels which he has heaved aboard with his hands and hammered at with the flat of an oar until they ceased their struggling. She knows the way his body moves before he does it, drawing in like a wire spring twisted up to full contraction before he raises his arms to beat something down.”
Note that the action doesn’t actually take place in the section above—the old authorial wisdom about the pulling of the trigger being the least dramatic moment.
This section, from the title story—about a tested couple stuck on a boat adrift in a flooded world—is pretty representative of some of the key images and themes in play in the book. There’s marine life, and understatement, and threat, and relationships. Specifically, several of the stories follow life after the end of a relationship, in different ways.
“The night is wild, uncurving, like the earth might be flat and walkable from end to distant end. Mona watches the girls nuzzle into the shoulders of their companions and tries to recall any instance of filming a boy in the queue. The band’s audience, she knows, is broadly feminine — the kind of music that aches and claws its feet in bedclothes — but it occurs to her that there also isn’t a single man in their crew. She powers down her camera, making for the back entrance. From somewhere inside, she hears the slight reverb of soundcheck, a swell of warmth within her like a welcome forcing open of her chest; the band’s very particular wailing lushness, their wide and craving snarl.”
This quote is from 'Stop your women’s ears with wax', which is probably one of my favourites. It follows a woman on tour with a band whose fans, only girls, are truly fanatical. There’s something not right about the band, who are hardly seen, and something unnatural about their influence.
This unnatural influence is for me mirrored in the language used above—in the description of things like night and music, unseen things, in how the choice of words not just describes but defines. Again and again in Salt Slow I’ve found that every decision is in service of the mood of the story, of the retelling of the world.
“You could tell the library book on mourning customs was dated, primarily because of the emphasis it placed on the bereaved abstaining from balls and galas in the months after a death.”
You might think that Salt Slow is a very serious book, a very dramatic book. It is, but throughout—like this section opening from 'Cassandra After'—are moments of morbid humour, coiled in the dark water ready for you to step on.
“Back inside, we found Jenny just coming in, though it was nearly eight o’clock. She smiled at us both, pulling her hand from the front pocket of her dungarees to show us what looked very much like the flicked-off head of a scab.
We ordered pizzas as usual on the Friday.”
'The Collectables' is one of my favourite stories, about an all-female flatshare and their project to Frankenstein together an undisappointing man. It’s deliciously dark, sinister and hilarious, with a rich sense of foreboding throughout. There are so many sections I wanted to quote, but I couldn’t resist the segue between sections above.
“At night, I fall asleep in shreddings and tatterings, my dreams shot through with shouts of violence, bitter notches like bad beads on a rosary. In the still-dark of early morning, I wake to wonder at my face in the wardrobe mirror. Beneath the white flesh of my forehead, my eyes seem further apart than before.”
Sidestepping for a moment the quick brilliance of like bad beads on a rosary, this section from 'Mantis' is a great example of how Armfield writes: lush, reduplicative, wrought. Writ large across ten shorts, Salt Slow is a collection not to be consumed in one ravenous inhalation so much as steeped in, repudiated, returned to and assimilated—like a new limb, which happens to be a comparison not out of keeping with the themes of the book.
The hardest thing I found reading Salt Slow was the use of commas and ellipsis: their frequency and location. I prefer sentences that steam unobstructed by punctuation toward their inexorable conclusion—or, maybe, are a bit more in that direction. So at first the way Armfield punctuates felt like a tripping-up, but then, as I became familiar with the themes, it felt right. Alien, but right: like uncertainty, awkwardness, truncation; the result of anxiety, of vivisection.
There’s another device she uses where the end of a sentence is lapped by its own echo, the description made again in different words. This is like a tide or a tail, and again ties in nicely with the themes of the book. There’s probably a grammatical name for it; I moved around a lot as a child.
“The key, she has been taught by the books she reads, is to love a man slightly less than he loves you. That way you remain in some sense unreachable. An inch above the floor.
It is the shape of his mouth that makes this impossible. The crest of freckles up his back. He sleeps as if murdered, as if set in concrete, flat out and immobile. On one of their first nights together, he had set seven alarms to go off at three-minute intervals and in the morning had slept through every one. She had lain there confused, dead man in her bed. Had realised that there could be no way of loving sensibly if every morning started with the relief of finding him still alive.”
In case I’m focussing too much on the fishy horror of the collection there’s this, from 'Granite'—a story about a woman whose partner turns to rock—which is 100% romance and beauty.
There are a few other great sections from this story I wanted to use, which better demonstrate Armfield’s eye for observation, relationships, contemporary life—and for me her ability to weave together the natural and fantastical with the contemporary and the trivial is one of the things to be celebrated in the book. Monsters, transformations, miracles: these are subjects it’d be lazier to deliver in a timeless or cod-historical setting, with things like gossip and pizza and dating sites sticking out anachronistically like unpolished shards; in Salt Slow the two worlds feel not just inseparable but mutually perpetuating. Think Angela Carter reading HP Lovecraft, on her phone. In a Sea Life Centre.
“The jellyfish return again the next day. Flooding the shoreline in the early morning like a littering of plastic, the beach foul-breathed after a stormy night. The summer is becoming unpredictable, rain-swollen — a white, fetid season, filthy with cloud.”
There’s pathetic fallacy, where it rains when a character is sad, and then there’s this: the world is fully weirded by the fiction, and the true power of language is not analogy, not metaphor, but metaphysics.
There’s the old logic that SFF themes are solely or principally in play to tell us something meaningful about the real world. There’s a lot of value to the argument, but beneath its simplicity for me lurks the deeper truth that unreal fiction speaks to: that the world, the act of being, is inherently weird and magical. In Salt Slow you can say yes, metamorphosis speaks to adolescence and yes, jellyfish out of water are the end of a dependant relationship. But for me the collection renders these two things—the real and the fantastical—so well and so evenly that there’s no easy decision as to which is analogous to which, as to which is the skeleton and which is the skin.
If you dig the sound of Salt Slow I urge you to get your hands on a copy—I've a feeling you'll want to get onboard early in Julia Armfield's career. Word on the street is there's a novel in the works; in the meantime, you can also take a look at some recommended reading below.
Julia Armfield is a prize-winning fiction writer and occasional playwright based in London. Her work has been published in Lighthouse, Analog Magazine, Neon Magazine and The Stockholm Review, and she was the winner of The White Review Short Story Prize 2018. Salt Slow is her first book.