Thirst For Salt
Allen & Unwin, $32.99 pb, 336 pp
While the terms ‘romance’ and ‘novel’ are entangled at their origins, romance novels have been traditionally disparaged as formulaic and frivolous, feminine and anti-feminist. Nevertheless, romance is the most popular genre in the world. Harlequin reportedly sells two books every second. In recent times, scholars have given the genre serious attention.
Of course, a romantic plot is hardly exclusive to genre writing. Some of the great works of world literature, from Jane Eyre (1847) to The English Patient (1992), rely for their power on romantic love – its frisson of desire and fear, its inevitable association with transgression and betrayal. Romance, in other words, is not merely fare for women readers reputedly keen to escape into hackneyed fantasies of love.
Madelaine Lucas has unashamedly described her début novel, Thirst for Salt, as a love story, though it is hardly marketed as genre fiction. There is no burly shirtless man on the cover for a start. Indeed, given that Lucas developed the novel from the story that won the 2018 ABR Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize, the book invites high literary expectations. Unfortunately, those expectations, at least for this reader, were far from realised. Despite its lyrical language and its melancholy complication of the happy-ever-after plot of genre romance, Lucas’s novel – whose protagonist dreams of ‘having a baby with a man I loved and raising it together’ – is almost anachronistically conventional. It might even be called post-feminist.