The deep pathos of Lisa Duffy’s debut novel, “The Salt House,” is like a high storm tide that never ebbs. It is anchored in the lives of the Kelly family of Alden, Maine, by the sudden death of baby Maddie, leaving Jack and Hope and their two daughters, Jess and Kat, floundering for air enough to breath, to go on with their lives in the small fishing village.

The story is told through alternating chapters from each of their perspectives, as each contends with the multiplicities of loss and grief caused by the death of the littlest among them. It was an accident. Kat had been playing with Maddie in her crib, and failed to notice that the golden heart-shaped locket her parents had given her for her birthday and come unclasped and fallen into Maddie’s crib sheets. Maddie subsequently swallowed and choked on it while Hope worked on her column for Parent Talk magazine 20 feet away in another room. The story opens a year later amid the lingering ruins of what had once been a tight, happy family.

Kat is 8, does not know her role in Maddie’s death and is saddened by watching her parents’ increasing disaffection with each other. Jess is 16, wanting to escape the restrictions of her overprotective father to pursue a budding friendship with a new kid in the village. Jack is angered at his wife’s continued rebuffs of affection and loses himself in longer hours pulling lobster traps, in part to make up for the loss of income from Hope’s writing, and also to avoid truly processing the death of his daughter. And Hope is tormented by her failure as a mother, angry with herself for failing to keep her child safe. Her unresolved anger, guilt and loss are underscored by online posts on the magazine’s website after Maddie’s death. Such as “What kind of mother doesn’t notice a necklace in her daughter’s crib.” And “Nice parenting. NOT. RIP sweet baby.” And “Who are you to write a parenting column?” As a consequence, Hope is crippled by writer’s block.

Plans to renovate what is known in the family as the Salt House, the ramshackle house on a point that Jack’s grandfather gave him, are on protracted hold. The family had intended to finish the renovations at the end of the previous summer. Maddie’s death foreclosed on that dream. Jack has no time and no money to do the work, as he is compelled to haul traps from dawn to dark to make payments on the construction loan for the Salt House and pay the mortgage on their home, which they had planned to rent after they moved into the finished house on the point.

Lisa Duffy

Tensions explode early in the story over a party that Hope hosts against Jack’s desires, the party given to introduce Hope’s new friend Peggy and her husband, Ry Finn, to other locals. Jack has a dark history with Ry from boyhood. It prompts Jack to demand after the party that the couple never be allowed back in their home again. Hope retaliates by kicking Jack out of the house.

Jess, who is often annoyed with her little sister Kat, is not beyond marshaling her adolescent angst and animus to go after one of Kat’s new classmates who bullies her at school, teasing her that her parents are going to get a divorce. Jess rides her bike across town to find him. It brings her face-to-face with Ry Finn, the boy’s stepfather. Jess thinks he’s a jerk for an altercation she’d witnessed from her bedroom window between Finn and her dad in the backyard on the night of the party. She also encounters 18-year-old Alex, who happens to be Ry’s stepson as well. The budding affection between the two puts Jess at cross-purposes with her father, which she attempts to manage by keeping the relationship a secret.

A potential battle brews between Jack and Finn over claims to fishing grounds that Finn had once lobstered before leaving town and now expects Jack to relinquish to him. The tragic secret that fueled their blood feud in high school threatens to consume both families.

Duffy writes with sharp insight about the troubled hearts of all her characters. The alternating narratives in successive chapters weave anger together with love, longing with regret and heartbreak with hope. “The Salt House” is a story told with a clarity and nuance that is at times startling. The story moves through entangled tragedy with great confidence, never succumbing to sentimentality. It is ultimately a story of painstaking – and painful – honesty about the fragile nature of relationships and the latent resiliency in people with fractured lives to allow grief and regret to stitch them back together with love.

Duffy writes with lean, sharp prose that sweeps the story along. “The Salt House” is a marvelous debut novel.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer. He can be reached via his website:

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