Salt on Your Tongue: Women and the Sea by Charlotte Runcie – review

This motherhood memoir-cum-nature journal about the connection between women and the sea is bracing and poetic

The journalist and ex-poet Charlotte Runcie is the very definition of a thalassophile. Raised in landlocked Hertfordshire, her first real encounter with the sea comes on a childhood holiday to the Isle of Skye. The water is icy, the breeze hard and the clouds low, yet she’s imprinted by the experience as surely as one of Konrad Lorenz’s geese. Or should that be gannets? Because she is left ravenous for more, seeking out its salty swell at every opportunity and lining her pockets with littoral keepsakes: sea glass, cockleshells, desiccated starfish.

Her longing only intensifies when, living in Edinburgh and becalmed in a state of extended childhood while her contemporaries net dream jobs or – cliche of cliches – go travelling, she finds herself pregnant, aged 28. Her first thoughts are of all that seems suddenly out of reach. “I wanted to have an adventure. But I’m going to have a baby,” she panics. If she has become a “vessel”, then the coming nine months will turn out to be a voyage in themselves, one whose far-flung itinerary includes ancient Greece and 18th-century shell grottoes and whose manifest runs to monsters of the deep, superstitious sea shanties and Grace Darling – the real Grace Darling, not the saccharine heroine invented by the Victorian media.

As she nurtures new life in her saline core, Runcie is also haunted by her grandmother’s sudden death. Salt on Your Tongue is her voyage’s log, a delightfully idiosyncratic prose debut that mixes memoir with history and cultural criticism to explore some of the ways in which the sea inspires and connects women in art and life.

Despite her love of all things nautical, Runcie neither swims obsessively nor learns to sail. In the way of generations of women past, her relationship with the water is primarily shore-based. Ships may be universally female, their prows even adorned by bosomy figureheads, but in many traditions, it’s considered bad luck to have an actual woman aboard. Female sailors have only grown common since the mid-20th century. Previously, “women of the sea were, instead, women of the shore”, Runcie notes. They were fishwives and sea widows. Or else they were fictitious and fearsome – mermaids, Scylla, Grendel’s mother, beings whose malevolent intent underscored their otherness.

Both the superstitions and the tall tales derive, Runcie suggests, from women’s “suspicious affinity” with the sea and its lunar tides. “Women and coasts are constantly changing and physically redrawing themselves in cycles,” she reminds us, none more so than during pregnancy. And so she weathers waves of morning sickness and contractions, feeds salty cravings (anything from McDonald’s fries to Monster Munch will do) and becomes a “sea witch” during labour. Having wondered at the similarities between mythic sea monsters and drawings of early-stage foetuses, she is mesmerised by her newborn daughter’s hands, delicate as starfish. Only wave sounds will lull her infant to sleep and, on their first beach trip together, Runcie dabs her forehead with seawater.

A hybrid of nature journal and motherhood memoir sounds cynically on-trend, but Salt never feels anything less than wholly authentic. True, its brief chapters sometimes read like the ramblings of a writer in search of her story, hopping from topic to topic with a fidgetiness that can leave the reader feeling almost seasick. Still, relax into its motion and the narrative’s fluidity becomes a joy. Runcie is appealingly unfashionable, too – she is erudite, weaving in quotes in ancient Greek and old English and, despite her narrative’s first-person candour, she retains a certain reserve. (A passing reference to her clergyman grandfather, for example, neglects to mention that he was in fact the late Robert Runcie, archbishop of Canterbury.)

Throughout, her prose is defined by cool confidence and unshowy clarity, allowing its more poetic observations, of which there are plenty, to glimmer like glass pebbles. Starfish are “skeletons of the night, souvenirs of possibility”, while at the height of summer, churches and pubs bask in a “warm haze as if seen through a jar of clear honey”. She has a nice way with lists, too – her grandmother, for instance, “was a woman of piano keys and seashells, and distant sparkling cruise ships, and ambition and defiance”. It all makes for bracing reading and, just like her favourite kind of blustery beach, it’s strewn with pocketable treasures.

Before becoming pregnant, Runcie always suspected that her sea obsession was born of her Britishness – we are, she notes, a nation characterised by sea-themed cliches, from fish and chips to Rule Britannia. The pull towards the sea also seemed part of her search for an ancient, mystical connection to nature. By the book’s end, she knows better. “The call of the sea is the call to the absolute strength of women,” she declares.

• Salt on Your Tongue: Women and the Sea by Charlotte Runcie is published by Canongate (£14.99). To order a copy for £10.99 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Hephzibah Anderson

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Red Thread: On Mazes and Labyrinths by Charlotte Higgins – review
An erudite study of mazes and labyrinths takes the author back on a personal twisting path of her own

Natalie Haynes

31, Jul, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin review – wandering women
In this enjoyable memoir-cum-cultural history, Lauren Elkin calls upon the female spirit of idle strolling

Lucy Scholes

25, Jul, 2016 @6:00 AM

Article image
Equal: A Story of Women, Men and Money by Carrie Gracie – review
The BBC journalist’s important account of her struggle to win equal pay is full of sound advice for women

Rachel Cooke

08, Oct, 2019 @6:00 AM

Article image
I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice review – when the sea is your saviour
A writer’s moving tale of how she found solace from family trauma in the cold waters of the Irish Sea

Lara Feigel

30, Jul, 2017 @5:59 AM

Article image
As Kingfishers Catch Fire: Books & Birds – review
Alex Preston’s literary compendium of birds, illustrated by Neil Gower, is a sumptuous labour of love

Katharine Norbury

02, Jul, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
The Only Girl by Robin Green – review
No areas are off limits in a vivid account of life as the only female writer on Rolling Stone magazine in the 70s

Barbara Ellen

20, Aug, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
Wintering review – learning to love the cold
Katherine May brings a poet’s eye to this enthralling celebration of our fallow season

Kate Kellaway

04, Feb, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Look Again by David Bailey review – girls, camera, action
The fashion photographer and documenter of 60s London looks back in the company of old friends and lovers in a raw and surprising memoir

Tim Adams

02, Nov, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard – review
In his first of four seasonal reflections, Karl Ove Knausgaard drifts through autumn, still treading a fine line between the banal and the beautifully unpredictable, says Stuart Evers

Stuart Evers

21, Aug, 2017 @6:30 AM

Article image
My Father’s Wake by Kevin Toolis review – a brutal epiphany
As a foreign correspondent, Kevin Toolis routinely encountered death – but it was only when his father died that he truly came to terms with mortality

Sean O'Hagan

29, Aug, 2017 @6:30 AM