An affecting new book on women and the sea is beautifully writtenby Cal Flyn / March 6, 2019 / Leave a comment
Charlotte Runcie’s Salt On Your Tongue is an intriguing first book: a combination of cultural criticism, miscellany and motherhood memoir, it bounds from The Odyssey to sea shanties, from art gallery to labour ward and back again. The progression of her pregnancy is the silver thread that holds the whole work together.
Runcie’s book opens at a troubled time in her life. She is dissatisfied by her career as a journalist, and her lack of worldliness. Her love for the sea seems to represent a yearning for adventure that is tantalisingly out of reach—not unlike the women that populate her pages, standing longingly on the shore as they await their lovers’ return.
As she notes there are few stories of women at sea—at least, few have been recorded. They exist as mythical temptresses (sirens, mermaids) but in reality mostly served supporting roles from the quayside. Sailors believed women to be unlucky; in one extreme case, they literally threw them overboard to escape their “curse.”
Pregnancy brings home to Runcie the inescapable demands of her sex. At first she has mixed feelings—she tells a male friend: “it feels as strange and impossible to me as it would to you”—but soon the animal in her is ascendant. She strides out into the ocean of motherhood, and it is her partner Sean who watches fearfully from shore.
Having reflected on women’s work and art—referencing Woolf and Plath—she also considers what it means to be a mother and exist, at least in part, in relation to others. It’s not a new dilemma, she admits, but it feels neither domestic nor dull. It is raw and frightening. She quotes a fisherman’s prayer: “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small!”
Some of the seagoing facts could be stripped away, to leave only the powerful images. But this is an affecting book. Runcie writes beautifully, her words carefully weighed and balanced.
Salt On Your Tongue: Women and the Sea by Charlotte Runcie (Canongate, £14.99)