#331: Book Review — The Salt Path, Raynor Winn

One less-than-delectable duty of a Waterstones employee is to sell our four books of the month. Each month the Waterstones gods pick one fiction, one thriller, one nonfiction and one children’s book, and furiously promote them in the hope of securing better profit margins with publishers.

Some shops aren’t really too fussed about Books of the Month. Some are. It really depends on how keen your manager is. Unfortunately, my manager is a fanatic.

Therefore selling these books is a priority: so much so, that it’s the primary metric by which we’re ranked. We sidle up to customers, say hello, ask them how their day’s going, ask what they’re looking for, and harness all our mental powers into guiding the conversation towards buying one of these four books. Ever thought to yourself how nice and friendly Waterstones employees are? They’re not. They just want to sell you one of four books.

As you can imagine, it’s pretty difficult to recommend books you haven’t read.

“If you’re interested in thrillers, you might like Give Me Your Hand. It’s brilliant, one of the bestselling books in our store, and it’s on our buy one get one- -”

“Oh, what’s it about?”

“Haven’t a clue.”

So it makes life easier if you’ve read one or two of them. Unfortunately Give Me Your Hand looks more bland than an edam cheese. The kids’ book of the month is sprayed purple, which offends my masculinity too much. The fiction one is called Tangerine, and I promised myself I’d avoid fruit-titled books after the torment which was A Clockwork Orange.

Which brings me to The Salt Path. And from this most cynical of beginnings comes a story of pure and blissful love.

Because this is a

damn

good

book.

Plain and simple.

The premise is absolutely horrific. A couple (a real life, living, breathing couple, bear in mind) have lost everything. Raynor Winn and her husband Moss lose their house and savings due to a friend betraying them, and a few weeks later, Moss is diagnosed with a terminal illness. All his joints will be painful, then they will become useless, then his mind will deteriorate, then he will choke and die.

And I put this so bluntly because Raynor Winn puts it so bluntly. And honestly, this book spooked me a little bit. It drew back the curtain and showed life as it really is, stripped of the trappings. Scared, frail creatures.

From there, the couple’s decision to walk the South West Coast Path might seem a tad unfathomable. But it’s not so much this is a good idea as it is everything else is too miserable to consider. They are homeless, they have nothing, and are faced with a choice of lying down and dying, or doing something in the precious time they have left.

So they do. They walk the Coast Path, which stretches from Minehead, just out of the Severn Estuary, all the way to Land’s End, then back Westwards to Poole. It’s 630 miles long. Six hundred and thirty fucking miles.

With no preparation, with no money, with a debilitating physical and mental illness. I won’t lie: it felt like a colossally foolish decision as I read those first chapters. When your body gives up on you it’s essential not to accelerate the process, and this seemed like a one-way ticket to disaster.

But as they start walking, you’re swept away by the waves of Raynor Winn’s really-quite-impressive prose. Nature writing can so often be dull, or at least a bit monotonous, but she does a great job of giving each area they visit its signature imagery. More difficult to digest are the plentiful descriptions of physical pains they’re both going through, which are so vivid on the page that it’s a bit traumatizing. Screaming joints, peeling noses, sweat-soaked clothes hanging off gaunt ribs: it’s the full works here. I haven’t seen a book deal so candidly with the facts of physical illness, well, ever.

But miraculously, Moss improves. Only slightly, and very slowly, but the extreme physio seems to help. As a reader, it seems doubtful, but you’re so swept up in the sheer bravery of the journey, the sheer magnitude of the fuck you to the world and it’s hardships, that you accept it as true. And by all accounts, it is. The book spans a period of almost two years, at the end of which Moss should be on his deathbed. But he’s not, he’s sitting in the front row at a literary festival as Raynor talks about her bestseller.

This is my kind of love story. Read it, I dare you.

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Stories, travel writings and other ramblings by Ben Creeth