Sex doesn’t always sell.
Particularly when it comes to literature. Sure, there is a good deal of popular fiction centered around sex (Harlequin romances and 50 Shades of Grey come to mind). But when it comes to quality writing, it’s difficult to capture the intricacies of sexual passion without falling into cliche, melodrama and collective groans. As Benoite Groult says herself in the prologue to Salt on my Skin, it isn’t ‘without a certain apprehension do I join that band of writers who try to capture those pleasures called carnal’ for ‘I shall find that words don’t help one express the ecstasy of love, that transport so intense that ordinary frontiers dissolve.’ Not when ‘every forlorn, drab, coarse, grotesque, even frankly repellent word is waiting to betray me.’ Yet despite her hesitations, Groult accepts the daunting challenge to write a novel centered around sexuality. And the results are outstanding.
Salt on my Skin uses the classic premise of star-crossed lovers for her novel about long-lasting desire. George is a Parisienne intellectual who vacations every summer in a fishing village where she grows up alongside Gauvin, a working class Breton. Their lustful encounters begin when George is 18 and will sporadically continue for the next 30 years. Divided into 12 parts, Groult centers the novel around George and Gauvin’s secret trysts across the globe.
Salt on my Skin is filled with erotic passion: with little else in common, George and Gauvin are tethered by their mutual passion. Yet while it’s challenging subject matter, Groult succeeds with an honest portrayal of sexuality in all its forms. Mixing insecurity with brazen lust, hesitation with bold action, she captures the complexity of sexual relationships from embarrassment to fulfillment. While some of George and Gauvin’s meetings are slightly marred by heightened language, they simultaneously capture the fever of love. George, who acts as first-person narrator for the majority of the novel, describes even her own her awe towards her sexuality, saying ‘I was amazed by how mute my body had become after its clamorousness with Gauvin, like it being able to face the thought of drink after a bender. Now I wondered how on earth I could have allowed myself to carry on like a sex-maniac and feel so happy about it.’
Groult also provides clear motivation for George. Although she has other partners better suited to her, Gauvin’s pure love and adoration stokes her ego and gives her the attention she needs to feel assured. As she ages, she describes how ‘I could contemplate my slackening body without too much anguish because I knew that someone loved it. I could pat my slightly bloated, slackening belly, because I knew that someone loved it... No detoriation could tell me as long as Gauvin still loved me.’ George remains drawn to Gauvin out of love for him, but also the deep-seated need to feel loved herself.
Despite their mutual passion, it is explicit why George and Gauvin cannot be together. One of the highlights of the novel is a trip to Disney World that beautifully captures the stark differences between George and Gauvin’s outlooks and the heightened frustrations that come when they attempt to co-exist in the public world. George is appalled by the artificial consumerism of the Florida amusement park and the transformation of visitors into gluttons chasing cheap thrills. Yet she is further disgusted by Gauvin’s reaction:
‘Nothing found favour in her eyes, least of all Gauvin’s bedazzlement. His eyes were round with amazement wherever they went, his mouth hanging open. Like all the other little boys from everywhere, thought George, united by such excitement as to forget even to stuff themselves with the popcorn or their garish iced which melted in poisonous colours down their windcheaters. But once on this production line there was no way of escaping. The visitors, organized into groups of a hundred, were channeled, timed, stimulated to an immutable programme, herded politely but firmly along the one-way passages from which there was no way out.’
When they return to the hotel, George announces she can’t do another day and is filled with resentment. Gauvin becomes angry and ‘saw how unpleasant George could be.’ It’s one of many reminders that, despite their lustful passion, George and Gauvin are completely at odds with one another.
All told, Salt on my Skin combines the fantasy of love with the harsh reality of the external world. Written in simple, conversational prose, it’s an always engaging novel filled with wit, humour and a strong female voice. Groult, herself a leading feminist, was criticized when Salt on my Skin was first published because of her portrayal of a woman who allows herself to be overtaken by lust and desire. Yet for me, there’s a real value in Groult’s honesty. She portrays female sexuality as it is: complex, unflattering and, at times, heightened and beautiful.
Throughout the novel, Groult uses the ocean as a metaphor for love, the vast body of water that leaves behind salt on George’s skin. The image of the ocean encompasses the tumultuous nature of such female sexuality, beauty mixed with chaos, powerful swells mixed with periods of calm. In an evocative passage, Groult describes George running on the sand as Gauvin watches:
‘She felt born anew, as if recalling some fleeting distant memory of those first creatures who left the sea to breathe the strange element, air. Her desire, her love, formed only one of the strands of the spell which held her. She wished she could hoard all this happiness for ever. But love can’t be stockpiled any more than you can harvest sunlight. Each experience is unique and vanishes like waves which recede then melt into the ocean.’
In many ways, Groult proves love and happiness, and even the ocean, to be rather similar. Both all-consuming when present, yet always on the verge of drifting away, and leaving only tinges of salt behind.