The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate (thoughts)
I loved Martha Southgate’s debut novel, The Fall of Rome, and I’ve been meaning to read more of her ever since. This past weekend, I checked out The Taste of Salt electronically, loaded it up on my Nook, and curled up. I wasn’t disappointed: although short, this is a compelling read that left me with tears in my eyes at the end. The emotions are just so raw, and somehow made more powerful by our narrator’s determinedly detached voice.
That narrator would be Josie Henderson, raised by ambitious parents in a middle class black neighbourhood in Cleveland, who has loved the ocean since her ocean-free childhood (Lake Erie wasn’t enough for her), and is now a successful marine biologist. At the point the story opens, she’s in her later thirties, feeling professionally more solid after years of working to establish herself in a field dominated by white men. As things have come together in work, though, they’ve fallen apart in her personal life: her father was an alcoholic throughout her childhood, and now her brother is also an addict. She mainly copes with this by avoiding her family, but when her mom directly asks her for help, Josie’s forced to return to Cleveland, dredging up old memories in the process.
The book reveals itself in bits and pieces, but it reads as if Josie is keeping a diary for herself, trying to figure out what exactly is going on and how she feels about it. The format is of a traditional novel; I’m talking more about tone. She is very much a scientist, steeped in objectivity and data gathering, and her voice reflects that. It’s interesting too: as a child she read fairly extensively, due to her parents’ influence, but she never became a bookworm, and now as an adult she prefers reading ‘useful’ nonfiction and rarely touches novels. So the way she speaks about the events is almost deliberately free of many storytelling devices, the kinds of things I would unconsciously use in describing my own life, simply from a lifetime of novel reading. The times she does attempt to add more narrative, she prefaces it with musings on it as a device. I’m very impressed with how Southgate manages to pull this off, because I’m sure she’s a reader in her own life. I love it when the narrative voice is an integral part of the story, and it certainly is here. Occasionally the point of view shifts to other characters, and their tones and diction are all different and easily identifiable (one of my readerly pet peeves is when a novel has multiple narrators that all sound the same): it makes for excellent reading.
I was also fully invested in all of the characters: Josie of course, her parents and brother, her husband, and later her coworker all lived vividly in my mind. I cared about what happened to them, and I empathised with them all. This is another testament to Southgate’s authorial ability, as I’m not generally terribly empathetic to characters whose bad decisions make others miserable. While my little plot summary might make this sound like an ‘issues’ novel, really it’s a novel about the humanity within each of us, and how we try to reach out to each other, and how sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. I loved it, and I hope that more people pick it up, especially those readers who read primarily white authors. While The Taste of Salt is very much a universal story, it is grounded in Josie’s experiences as a black woman, and those specifics are important. Which is not to say I recommend it as a ‘black novel’, rather as an excellent book that will encourage empathy among all those who read it, a quality we can always use more of. Anyway, I do hope Southgate has a new novel in the works; as it is, I only have one remaining (Third Girl From the Left).
P.S.: I really don’t care for the cover, not due to its aesthetics, but because of how it fails to relate to the book. I don’t think it captures the spirit of the book at all, because of its very prettiness. This is a novel that consistently dives beneath the surface of things, and I think the cover does a disservice.