Elanor Dymott’s debut, Every Contact Leaves a Trace, was a sophisticated thriller about a man whose wife is murdered when visiting an old advisor at Oxford. In Silver and Salt, Dymott applies her elegant sense of the mysterious to the story of an ill-fated family as two daughters of a famous photographer try to come to terms with his death.
After the 2003 death of renowned British photographer Max Hollingbourne, his daughters convene at a villa in Greece, where they spent many summers as a family. Vinny is the older, more responsible sister, a translator of German drama and poetry and happily married. Three years younger and considerably more volatile, the mordantly unhappy and antisocial Ruthie arrives after the funeral with a list of grievances and demands. Already haunted by memories of an unhappy childhood, a glimpse of the little girl in the neighboring house further destabilizes Ruthie.
The novel interweaves past and present, much of it sad. Max first met his French wife, Sophie, at a photo shoot, and not long after, she gave up her career as an opera singer to be his wife and raise their daughters as he roamed the world, often leaving them alone for months. Even after Sophie began to show signs of mental illness, Max never stopped traveling, but called in his sister Beatrice to help, even asking her to live with the girls when Sophie became too ill to take care of them. When Ruthie tried to share her burgeoning interest in photography with Max, his reaction was often cruel and sometimes violent, leading to an estrangement between father and younger daughter that lasted until his death. Dymott uses a photographer’s ability to alter and manipulate images through the developing process as a metaphor for the tenuous grip Ruthie has on sanity, although there are times when the author’s poetic reach exceeds the novel’s action.
Silver and Salt is an achingly intimate look at grief, and Dymott’s descriptive gifts are amply found in her rich depictions of place from an English flower-filled meadow to the Greek olive groves surrounding the Hollingbourne villa.