Let’s get this out of the way up front: I know Duncan Ralston. We became acquainted via Facebook, and he ended up beta reading my debut novel. The reason I asked him to do this is because I read his short story collection Gristle and Bone and was mightily impressed with his abilities as a writer. So, yes, I consider him a friend, but to be clear, I’m also a fan. Also, my standard reviewing policy applies, in that I only review books I a) finish and b) enjoy, regardless of who wrote it.
Salvage is a ghost story, but it’s also much more than that. Owen Saddler, the protagonist, is a forty year old man with depression and a blank memory where his early childhood should be. When his sister dies, he finds himself drawn back to the town he grew up in and can no longer remember, and in particular that part of the town since flooded to make way for a giant hydroelectric dam in the area.
I mentioned enjoying Mr. Ralston’s short fiction, but of course a novel is a different beast, and I admit to some concerns as to if he’d be able to sustain his excellent storytelling in a longer form. I needn’t have worried. All the Ralston stock-in-trade elements are present and correct - superlative character work, a strong presence, and a confident, clear prose style. What I don’t think I’d really appreciated before was his astonishing ability to deliver a sense of place. I found myself picturing the locations in the story - especially the house that Owen rents upon the lake and the submerged town - with incredible clarity, which is all the more impressive as this is conveyed without huge slabs of description. Ralston knows how to do a lot with a little, and it’s a talent I am both impressed by and a little jealous of.
His unwrapping of the premise is similarly skillfully handled, progressing down the rabbit hole step by step, each progression feeling logical, building a sense of dread long before any overt events come crashing in. Owen is a brilliantly realised protagonist, and Ralston manages to convey the depressive mindset without the book itself becoming maudlin. It helps that Owen himself is only dimly aware of his own condition, which again tracks with how the illness often manifests itself.
There’s a lot of big themes here - loss, religion, and of course mortality - and Ralston navigates them with skill and deftness, weaving them together seamlessly to create a rich tapestry that manages to be powerful without ever becoming overwhelming or confused. This is confident and skilled storytelling from a writer who seems to have an instinctive grasp of character, location, and narrative building, and the result is a powerful, thoughtful and intelligent first novel that is also deliciously readable.
If horror that hangs at the boundaries of the psychological and supernatural is your bag, I’d say this is essential reading. But to be honest, if you like strong, character driven narratives in general, you probably want to add Salvage to your shelf. Superb stuff.
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