Salt Lick is my second novel. It was published by Unbound in September 2021. In 2022 it was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.
Food production has moved overseas. The countryside is empty and once again wild. The rural economy has collapsed and people have no choice but to move to the cities. The population drifts away, towns and villages are abandoned. It isn’t dystopian, but it is further down the wrong road.
Jesse is eight. His family, moved on once by the sea flooding their coastal home, try to cling to their life in a small village. Soon, there is no work left; the family make the same necessary choice as so many others and a new life begins in London.
Decades pass. Isolde, in her thirties, is unhappy, her life stalled. She decides, finally, to learn about herself, and the formative event in early childhood – the death of her mother in a terrorist attack. She begins by visiting her mother’s killer in prison, hoping to discover why she died.
Isolde learns that her mother’s death wasn’t as grimly straightforward as she had been told. To discover more she heads for the wild Suffolk countryside. She leaves London on foot, walking the abandoned A12, sheltering in houses with buddleias growing through broken windows, faded carpets shot with bindweed, foxes in the dining rooms.
She meets Lee, a young runaway from one of the White Towns, white nationalist settlements that scatter the country like a dangerous rash. Isolde takes Lee under her wing and together they travel on to find the farm. Lee, who wears a ribbon around his neck to hide the tattoo of his provenance, is sheltered by the group from the threat of his family, bent on taking him back. Isolde’s past, the looping connection between her and Jesse, and the possibility of a different future is revealed.
The book has a chorus, the dreamy herd voice of feral cows, who are impatient with humans for their cruelty and lack of ability to find contentment, but they watch over Jesse, Isolde and Lee with benevolent care, understanding their lives as part of a bigger story that ravels and unravels endlessly over time.
Excerpt from Salt Lick
The economic decline of the countryside, slid in first to the fields and farmlands, then to the villages, the market towns. After new employment and immigration laws bite, the workforces and wage offers no longer matched and so the workers disappeared. Harvests were hindered by the vagaries of a local work force not used to that much work for that little pay. The supermarkets stepped up importation. And as they imported more, less was provided from within the national borders. The shift over time changed the balance of power by finally depreciating the long-steady value of land. Wages for farm workers were pinched further and supermarkets scoured other lands for their produce.
For a while, for the well-heeled, little changed. Marshal kept up his flatteringly matey friendships with the wealthy of the parish. The men, encountering their own physicality only in the pampered confines of a gym, were drawn to his way of treating them as casually manly equals. All customers spoke of his impeccable reputation for quality. Though increasingly, at the golf clubs and spas, people muttered about the economic climate. The gin and tonics were knocked back between head shakes and bluster, bitter soliloquies about betrayal. Hand-in-fist together, planning national strategies that best served them, the rural wealthy, the landed gentry, were outraged to discover that they no longer had the ear of government.
Chunks of ice clinked against comfortingly hefty glass in the tremor of a suddenly bankrupt hand. During the chaos of the pandemic, the pattern of wealth in the country shifted. Over time, the losses increased, the economic climate became harder still. Some of the rich remained rich. Some did not. There were heart attacks and suicides. The gentlemen farmers, astonishingly quickly, found that all they had to bargain with was the long habit of association with those who ruled the country. Friendship can go a long way, in individual cases; some of those bonds survived the fall from grace, but it was the developers in the towns who were courted. What was the wealth of a landowner when no one wanted land?
Marshal, quicker to spot the signs than his complacent customers has shored up some of his options by becoming an installer of new systems for bespoke, single-unit flood defences. The wealthy who remain have shifted spending from luxury and pleasure to the necessary, to insurance. He is still busy enough to feed the family, busy enough to feel too distant from them, but the days of easy wealth are behind them.
all will fade
and grow again
this is the meaning of natural order
perhaps your time comes to a close
yes, in many ways you spent it well
– that was a time, was it not?
but think what you could have done with such gifts
‘Dad?’ Jesse leans his head onto his father’s side, lolling against the movement of his breakfast preparations. Marshal loops an arm around his son’s shoulders.
‘Yes? What can I do for you?’ Jesse pauses, thoughts tumbling uselessly, realising too late that he hasn’t worked out the perfect formula. But he has started now.
‘Can I get a dog?’
‘We’ve talked about this before, remember? We don’t know what’s going to happen, if we have to… we might not be able to look after a dog.’
‘But we’re not going to move now. This house won’t flood.’
‘No, it won’t flood. But if work carries on as it is, if … I don’t know, Jesse; there are still quite a lot of ifs and it would be harder if we had a dog too.’
Jesse detaches himself, sits at the table. He is thinking furiously, looking for the chink in his father’s argument. Looking for a way to reframe the question. It’s beyond him. He will try to talk to his mum he thinks, later, when she’s in a good mood. As soon as Marshal leaves, Jesse puts on his shoes and goes to the woods. It is earlier to be out than he is used to. He notices a softness in the air, the faint hush of a day not fully awake. He pauses at the gate to look over the field, just for a moment, to check where the cows are. They are sitting down. Big as sofas. He wonders if they are still sleeping. He scurries the last yards.
The shelter is still intact. He can hear Mister Maliks inside, can see the snuffle of a black nose between gaps in the construction. He pulls away the stones – flints fallen from a breach in the top of the barn wall. The puppy is overjoyed, leaps up at the crouching boy. Jesse picks up the small body, so intent on licking his face that he forgets to be afraid of the encircling arms.
we see you, boy
we see your gentle heart
keep it carefully
it has work to do
The village is bristling, agitation disturbs the smooth nap of village life. A group of white nationalists have moved into Little Denton, a village less than three miles by road and only a long mile on woodland paths. Little Denton is a quiet place, or it used to be. There had once been a fierce cricket rivalry, but neither village can muster a team now.
John, who farms cereal crops as part of a resilient if threadbare collective comes by, telling how he had seen them moving into some empty houses on Elm Close. He despairs he says. Might as well be in the bloody city.
He goes round to Gopal Malik’s house. The two men had shared a passion for maintaining hedgerows for wildlife. But Gopal died. John misses him, the time spent working hard on something rewardingly beneficial followed by a well-earned pint in whichever village pub was nearest. Over the years, he came to know Gopal’s two daughters, though they have never lived in the village. Chetna is spending some time in her father’s house while she sets straight his affairs. John wants to warn her about the newcomers. Chetna sighs. She had thought that leaving the city might mean a break from anxiety, from the escalating tension as fears become sour and turned outwards. A weight slides over her shoulders – the donning of a wry courage she had hoped she needn’t carry here.
you need protection
you ever did
we all ever did
from the flaw of cruelty
to be called into use
put into eager, angry hands
is it in the marrow? Or in the mind?
it seems part of the design
The children are told to keep away from Little Denton, though it is beyond the range of their regular play. Jesse spends all the time he can in the clearing behind the farm and the nearby woods with Mister Maliks. He discovers new ways to sneak food out of the house. He dreams all day of a woodland patch of sun and the chance to play with his new friend.