Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 9, 2022

The Salt of Broken Tears, (1999) by Michael Meehan

Reviews From the Archive

An occasional series, retrieving unpublished reviews from my journals 1997-2007

The catalyst for retrieving this review at this time is that Michael Meehan has a new novel forthcoming with Transit Lounge.  Meehan is the author of four novels and other academic titles, but he has a low profile on social media and doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page.  For an author of this stature, reviews are sparse and uninformative.  I really liked the two novels I’ve read, so I’ve resurrected this review from Reading Journal #3, 1999.

Meehan’s novels are:

  • The Salt of Broken Tears (1999) which won the Christina Stead in the 2000 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.
  • Stormy Weather (2000), review to be retrieved from the archive soon
  • Deception (2008), see the review by Perry Middlemiss here.
  • Below the Styx (2010), currently reading.

This is the blurb for The Salt of Broken Tears:

On the edges of the salt lakes, in the harsh Mallee country of north-west Victoria in the 1920s, isolated soldier-settler farms struggle to survive the dust and despair. There are few travellers: just the Debt Adjuster, or the Indian hawker Cabel Singh. Or a girl who turns up out of nowhere. Eileen. When Eileen disappears, a young boy sets out with his horse and his pup to find her, certain the mysterious Cabel Singh can help him. In the tradition of Cormac McCarthy, this haunting and beautifully written novel is both a journey through the Australian landscape and a meditation on the nature of imagination and desire.

These are the opening lines:

Well I remember how she blew in off the track that windy day more than a year ago, borne in like a thistle seed on the hot winds that beat in from the north, clothed in nothing but the green cotton dress that flicked and chopped about her, a patched and faded relic of some other person’s life, and she carrying nothing, bringing nothing of her own but her taut bare freckled body and sandwhipped hair in auburn streaks that ran before her in the wind, a smile of impertinent white teeth and an improbable tale about a wagon on the road and a farmer gone suddenly unhelpful, a ragged tear in her dress at the waist and a broken wheel and a recommendation — no paper, mind, just her own account, such as didn’t make much sense in the telling anyway — from a Lutheran pastor over at Rainbow who might for all that we knew never have existed at all. (p.1)

My review was never intended for publication, of course, and its limitations are what they are, but FWIW, here it is.

The Salt of Broken Tears, by Michael Meehan, first published 1999

From my reading journal, dated 29 October 1999

I have never read anything like this before: it’s magnificent.

The Salt of Broken Tears is the story of a boy who sets out across the dry and barren land beyond the Mallee, to search for the missing Cabel Singh the hawker, and for the girl Eileen who has disappeared from his home.

It’s an epic journey.  The reader moves with this child (who is perhaps twelve or thirteen) across a landscape so eternal and vast that I cannot fathom it.  Meehan writes prose like poetry, with fluid images of trees and salt plains and rotting logs all tumbling into one another, not in coarse monotony but in a beauty diverse and endlessly frightening.  A boy! And a boy not lost in this extreme landscape, but a boy who is purposeful as no adults are, intent on his mission.


Of all the adults, none commands respect, and those who try to assert their authority over the boy, soon find themselves grudgingly respecting him. Joe Spencer frees him from the gaol in which he is confined ‘overnight for his own safety, to stop him running off’.  His father finally catches up with him — only to give him permission to go on.

And then, he finally finds Singh, brutally murdered by a drunken, racist man and his mates.  Murdered, just as Sally had been, by men who walk away scot-free with the blind eye of the police upon them.

Eileen isn’t with them.  Eileen who had been abused and assaulted and driven to abandon everything and had walked out of the bush and into their lives.  She had brought laughter and freedom and a carelessness about herself and her body that a ‘good’ woman like the boy’s mother couldn’t bear.  Angry words and a blow too harsh and Eileen was dead.  It was Cabel Singh who was blamed for her death.

An extraordinary tale.

I journaled these thoughts about the book on the 29th of October, 1999.

This is an excerpt from the last pages:

He left his hat behind him on the salt, and strode on across the crumbling surface towards the low banks and pinkgrey cliffs that lay beyond the mirage waters, and as he moved closer to the shore, the tops of the cliffs began to appear through the shifting haze.  As he walked he threw away his canvas haversack and unbuttoned his heavy coat, which was soaked and dripping still with the blood of the horse or perhaps it was the blood of Cabel Singh, and he let it fall, a dark and tangled blemish on the salt.  He then pulled off his shirt which stank in the sweat that had coursed about his body under the heat of the coat, which dragged like hooks upon the scabs of the sores that had broken out upon his body and he threw it away so that it too lay as a dark blot on the salt behind them. As he moved closer towards the cliffs the airy water trembled and parted and ran off behind him to the south, and through the parting haze he could see upon the cliffs and amid the windtorn trees the shape of moving figures, the outline of trucks and carts moving about, the black stickfigures of people walking about the cliffs and making their way down towards the beaches, but with most just waiting above and upon the heghts, for they would now be able to see him, moving beyond the seas of floating light.  (p.296)

About the Author, from Read How You Want, viewed 7/11/22:

Michael Meehan grew up in the Mallee region of north-west Victoria. He studied law at the University of Adelaide, and literature at Monash and Cambridge Universities. He has taught in universities in many countries in Europe and Asia, and is a professor and former Head of the School of Communication and Creative Arts at Deakin University. His novels have been published in Australia, the UK and the US, and he won the NSW Premier’s Award for Fiction in 2000 with his first novel, The Salt of Broken Tears. He lives in Melbourne.

The book appears to be out of print, but there seem to be plenty of second-hand copies available at the usual places. (Brotherhood Books, however, is temporarily closed after the recent floods impacted on the Melbourne warehouse.)

Author: Michael Meehan
Title: The Salt of Broken Tears
Design: Yolande Gray
Publisher: Vintage (Random House), 1999
ISBN: 9780091839130, pbk, 297 pages
Source: personal library, purchased from Reader’s Feast, $17.95


  1. I was delighted to read your review of The Salt of Broken Tears. And it’s exciting to look forward to the new novel.


    • Thanks, Carmel. It’s been so long since his last book, he had slipped off my radar. But reading Below the Styx now is such an intense pleasure. It is exactly the kind of book I love.
      I’m almost finished, but I don’t want to be, I love it so.
      The new one is called An Ungrateful Instrument but (according to Goodreads) it’s not due out till February 2023. Just as well, really, books that come out in the pre-Christmas period tend to get swamped by all the books intended as presents for people who don’t usually read books…


      • Yes February 2023 – this gives people time to re-read the earlier novels…


        • If they can find them…
          I kept mine, thank goodness.


  2. The only one my library has is ‘Deception’. I guess I’ll start there.


    • Oh, lucky you! I have to track down a copy of that one…

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Lisa, I just bought this from Amazon (sorry) for my Kindle, and it’s also available in HB and PB. Your review had me when you quoted the first sentence.


    • Oh, that’s great, I didn’t realise that. Is that Amazon AU or the American site?


      • US


        • Hmm. It’s not available on Kindle on the Australian site. You’d think it would be!


          • Yes, that’s weird.


            • Amazon AU is often annoyingly weird. I hardly ever use Amazon but occasionally I want a book that I can’t get any other way. (African titles, and some Indian ones, especially.) And Amazon US will have it, and Amazon AU won’t.


  4. […] The Salt of Broken Tears | Michael Meehan (reviewed by Lisa @ANZLitLovers) […]


  5. […] The Salt of Broken Tears | Michael Meehan (reviewed by Lisa @ANZLitLovers) […]


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