THE SALT MARSH
Publication Date: 16th June 2016
‘The writing, whether about people or places, is excellent’ Sunday Express
A haunting thriller set in the windswept marshes of Kent and Norfolk, from the author of Orkney Twilight
It is a year since Sam's father died, but she cannot lay his ghost to rest. Jim was an undercover agent living a double life, and Sam has quit university to find out the truth about his work. Her journey will take her from the nightclubs of 80s Soho to the salt marshes and shingle spits of Norfolk and Kent. Here, in a bleak windswept landscape dotted with smugglers' huts and
buried bones, Jim's secret past calls to her like never before. Now Sam must decide. Will she walk away and pick up her own life? Or become an undercover operative herself and continue her father's work in the shadows…
Clare Carson is an anthropologist and works in international development, specialising in human rights. Her father was an undercover policeman in the 1970s. She drew on her own experiences to create the character of Sam, a rebellious eighteen year old who is nevertheless determined to make her father proud.
The Salt Marsh is my second novel about Sam the daughter of a police spy. It is set in England in 1986 and the plot involves witchcraft. The idea for this came from anthropological research I did in Zimbabwe in 1995. Anthropologists often compare different cultures – and find similarities in unexpected places.
I was living in a remote village in southern Zimbabwe researching women’s use of health services. It was hot and arid. There were deadly snakes, baobab trees and strange insects that looked like lobsters. At night the Southern Cross dazzled on the horizon. I spent my days wandering around mud huts interviewing women. Our conversations often drifted to witchcraft – women would whisper the names of those they thought used curses and potions to harm their neighbours. Accusations of witchcraft were a way of addressing jealousies and arguments, disputes about property, and general discontent. It was usually women who were accused of witchcraft. Widows were more vulnerable than most, particularly if they were still living on their late husband’s land.
On the edge of the village were four widows who had all once been accused of witchcraft. I sensed that they had an unspoken bond. I pieced together their stories and discovered that, during the seventies, they had been married to the same man. He was the local policeman, employed by the Rhodesian colonial state. He had a regular salary, which made him rich in comparison to the other villagers. That meant he could afford to have a lot of wives and he married six very young women - girls in fact. They had no choice in the matter. Their parents were glad to have the brideprice – money or cattle paid by the groom to the father of the bride.
The seventies was a decade of guerrilla war against white rule, culminating in Independence in 1980 and the election of Mugabe as President. When the independence fighters entered the village in the late seventies, the policeman was murdered by the rebels. His wives were all accused of witchcraft, beaten and chased away with their children. They dispersed – some to the towns to make a living hanging around the bars, and some to the South African gold mines. But eventually some of the widows returned. By then, the political tide in the area had turned against Mugabe, so the widows were no longer seen as wives of the enemy, and were allowed to resettle. They were not exactly forgiven, but tolerated on the margins.
I felt an unexpected connection with these women and their stories, because I am the daughter of a policeman, and they suffered from being the wives of one. When I was writing a story about Sam, the daughter of a police spy dealing with her late father’s enemies and the accusations they make about her, witchcraft seemed like an interesting way of expressing her fears. The Salt Marsh draws on the history of witchcraft in England as well as the stories from Zimbabwe, but it’s easy to sense the similarities in human behaviour sitting uncomfortably close to the surface, despite the differences in place and time.