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Unspeakable grief, and what it begets, in a remarkable debut novel

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…

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