The first novel from established writer and poet Gee Williams has already been shortlisted for the James Tate Memorial Prize for Fiction in 2008, and was winner of the Pure Gold Fiction Award in the same year. Given the accolades Williams has already received for this work, described by Kate Long as “off-beat, subtle, haunting, fresh”, I was surprised to find Salvage initially rather unprepossessing, apparently just another conventional domestic drama, albeit with hints to a quite unusual mystery.
The novel opens with Elly and Martin Kent, who hope to leave their troubles behind them when they escape for a short break in a friend’s secluded cottage on the quiet Welsh coast. But walking on the beach, Elly makes an unexpected discovery on the tideline: a magnificent pink diamond ring – with a human finger still attached. This gruesome discovery becomes the catalyst for a murder mystery, which quickly develops into a broader exploration of scandal, betrayal and the nature of ‘salvage’ itself.
Salvage is told from the point of view of five interconnected characters, each of whom has their own particular story to tell. To start with, this approach feels somewhat contrived, and the characters themselves are peculiarly flat and unconvincing: a typical line-up of Richard, the archetypal caddish, middle-class doctor; Hayley, his Cosmo-esque gold-digging mistress, with her taste for lipgloss and cheap MFI furniture; Pippa, his predictably faded, long-suffering wife; his meek and browbeaten best friend, Martin; and Elly, Martin’s sharp-eyed wife. Yet from this slow and rather ineffectual start, Salvage swiftly becomes increasingly suspenseful, subtle and complex. Flitting knowingly between the conventions of murder mystery, doctor/nurse romance, thriller and domestic melodrama, Williams seems to delight in destabilising her reader’s expectations, leaving us perpetually perplexed, unsure what to believe or even how to respond to this offbeat and unpredictable tale.
It quickly becomes clear that Salvage is no straightforward piece of genre fiction, but a tautly-plotted novel which systematically investigates the tangled threads of friendship and marriage connecting the characters, who themselves become increasingly complex and layered. Though uneven in places, the novel is anything but predictable: in fact, this is a strange and unexpected tale, which ranges confidently between different styles and settings, blending the matter-of-fact and often banal voices of the characters with the haunting atmosphere of the desolate Welsh coast. And though it is structured by a murder mystery, the real investigation underway here is about the nature of history and memory, storytelling and fiction. Indeed, like Iris Murdoch’s ‘The Sea, The Sea’, to which Williams makes a little intertextual nod early in the novel, Salvage is in fact an exploration of self-delusion – and in particular, the fictions we construct for ourselves.
Any Cop?: An adept and thought-provoking study of what it really means to ‘write fiction’, there is certainly much to be salvaged from this unpredictable first novel.