Bloomsbury Publishing

An unanchored identity: Saltblood, reviewed

Francesca De Tores’ Saltblood follows the loosely historical life of female pirate Mary Read. To describe it only as a ‘pirate’ novel would be to do it a disservice, and although Saltblood has its fair share of swashbuckling misadventure it is kept mostly grounded in mud, bilge water, and in Read herself. Amidst a recent zeitgeist for the piratical – TV shows like Our Flag Means Death or Renegade Nell contributing significantly – De Tores’ novel stands out for its realism.

In its dedication, De Tores acknowledges that Mary Read and Anne Bonny – its protagonists – are real historical figures, but that De Tores herself is ‘not a historian.’ This is not to the novel’s disadvantage, though, as the Golden Age of Piracy happily lends itself to a sort of mythologising.

Life is difficult for Read, in no small part thanks to the fact her fundamental identity is left unanchored from the off. The novel starts with Read’s childhood, in which her mother dresses her as a boy and calls her ‘Mark’ (the name of Read’s dead brother) to swindle money from an aging relative. Read lives as a man, from infancy through service in a stately home and into the navy and the army before reverting, as it were, to womanhood. She grows up impoverished, her mother abusive, and her years spent in military service are just as grueling. Though the novel promises salt air and the high seas, the long days of Read’s pre-pirate life are not monotonous. Read is a character as expansive as any Man-O’-War and contains within her enough different roles, identities, and names to crew one.

Although the novel spans a lifetime and a dozen ships, trenches, lovers and names Saltblood cannot be said to rush. Read is pensive and reflective, mulling quietly over everything she witnesses and sharing it only with us, the reader, and her ever watchful crow companion. The crow is, of course, named ‘Crow’ – in a text where names can be taken and discarded at will, anything else would be superfluous.

In De Tores’ close examination of gender identity and performance, fluid sexuality and self-exploration, the eighteenth-century has never looked so modern. The imagined details of Read’s disguise – stays used to bind the breasts and a sewn sack in the trousers – seem to borrow significantly from the binders and packers of transgender men in the modern day. It is an examination of gender attempted without the language of gender theory, in which Read navigates the seas and her life itself while her identity ebbs and flows around her. She is intermittently called ‘Mark’ and ‘Mary’, though seems to have no particular affiliation to either and her roles as sailor, soldier, wife and mother jostle with one another in each successive chapter.

By the time we meet Anne Bonny, another real-world female pirate, the quiet endurance of Read has become so familiar that Bonny’s passionate excesses are all the more jarring. De Tores navigates the two’s relationship lovingly (if not necessarily classily), allowing them a queerness that is refreshingly unadulterated (although, ironically, Bonny is in fact married).

Piraticism falls a little to the wayside, but De Tores’ prose remains thoughtful and well-composed. Its prolonged meditations on death may not appeal to a reader looking for a more hijink-fueled vision of the Golden Age of Piracy, but it is perfect for some brooding procrastination before a Collection or to put off doing that tute essay. Saltblood doesn’t ask much of a reader, save for some time and a willingness to indulge in its saline melancholy. It is the story of a body changing and costuming to adapt to the tides, and when even on dry land, Read is always a little at sea. There’s something pleasantly universal in that, whether you’re a cross-dressing, gun-slinging privateer or otherwise.