Floating in Saltwater

Floating in Saltwater book coverFloating in Saltwater: A memoir – A Young Girl’s Search for Answers is not the catchiest title. It accurately describes the content of this book, though: long, leisurely, detailed, and intriguing. Over the course of many chapters, Barbara Carter details events of her life from ages five to thirteen.

Carter grows up on the south shore (the coast of Nova Scotia between Halifax and Yarmouth), in the 1960s, in a rural home that sees an assortment of adopted children and boarders, odd visitors and relatives (though most visitors and relatives are odd to a child), and a steady stream of strangers, particularly those renting a nearby home. She frequently battles with her mother, and has a remote father who is occasionally supportive. In some respects, this is a very ordinary childhood. I battled with my mother, while my father was distant but sometimes helpful, and the story is the same among my friends.  We are about the same age as the writer, and I suspect this book particularly appeals to those of us whose earliest memories are from the 1960s: The events are both familiar and strange, and one tends to start comparing. Yes, I remember the moon landing, shown on the little black and white TV; yes, I remember discovering dad’s dirty magazines; no, I was not bathed in the same water as all my siblings, nor was the water heated on a kitchen stove. A lengthy set of discussion points and questions at the end encourages this sort of self-exploration and comparison.

The subtitle notes this is a search for answers, and few are found. Carter relates her story with minimal adult reflection and insight on the events. This strengthens the immediacy and mystery of the action, but some of the chapters are frustratingly brief, and their events seem to slip by with no lasting consequence, leaving one wondering why they happened and why they are remembered. Fortunately there are enough ongoing issues to maintain interest, and the passage and repetition of years provides sufficient structure.

I understand that a memoir is a set of recollections, but, perhaps unfairly, I still expect it to read like a story, with characters, a plot, and a conclusion. Since our memories are stories we tell ourselves, that’s not a completely unreasonable expectation. Carter acknowledges that these are her own recollections, and that she has shaped them in the interests of storytelling, such as reducing the number of boarding children. So there are characters, a plot, and a conclusion of sorts, but it’s gentle and loose. At times I was reminded of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, at times it seemed more poetry than prose, and at times I was left hanging and frustrated. That’s life, I suppose. I suspect Carter’s writing style may be influenced by her artistic work in other media, as discussed on her website. Some people seem to have a creative energy that expresses itself in many ways, while others, for better or worse, stick to a narrow field.

It took me a while to be drawn into the book, but I gradually found it more and more compelling. A second book continues the story, and while I’m keen to know what happens next, the blurb promises an exploration of “grief, anxiety, loss, and depression,” and the title is Balancing Act: Memoir of a Teenage Breakdown. I think I need a few Happy Ever After stories before I tackle that.