I have to go on from where I am. That’s why I don’t look back. That’s why I put it all behind me, put them all behind me, my family. They live in Cleveland. They don’t understand about the ocean. And that means they don’t understand about me. – from The Taste of Salt, page 14 –
Josie Henderson thinks she has escaped her past. She is the only black female scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution – a brilliant woman who is respected for her contributions. She is married to Daniel, a white man who shares her love of science. Josie keeps her childhood demons safely stowed away – her father’s slide into alcoholism, her parent’s divorce, her brother’s addiction to drugs and alcohol. Josie doesn’t want her family to pull her under and destroy her dreams. But sometimes, burying the past only creates trouble in the present.
When Josie’s brother, Tick, comes out of rehab at a Cleveland facility for the second time, Josie is there to pick him up – not because she wants to, but because her mother has asked her to. Tick’s struggles drag her back to her family. Meanwhile, she finds herself drifting apart from Daniel and slipping into an extramarital affair. Josie’s unresolved pain, and her damaged brother Tick, threaten to destroy everything she has worked so hard to build.
“I just think. I’ve watched you run and run and run from them.” He took a deep breath. “I’ve watched you run from me. And now he’s here. Your drunk, drug-addict brother is here and you can’t run any more. Can’t you try to be here with it? Be here with me?” – from The Taste of Salt, page 227 –
Martha Southgate writes with a brutal honesty and intimate knowledge of her characters which drew me into the story and kept me there. The narration is unique. Although Josie’s voice is the primary one, Southgate allows the reader to hear from Josie’s father, mother, and brother. At times, the narrator is omniscient, revealing Josie’s family from a wider perspective. In less talented hands, this kind of structure might get messy and unwieldy. But Southgate never loses control of her story, maintaining a tension which drives the narrative.
Josie’s story is not a happy one. It is heartbreaking, raw, and tragic. The reader can see the slide into catastrophe coming, but like the characters embroiled in the drama, there is no way to stop it.
I read through this book in record time, gulping it down in huge chunks, unable to put it aside for long before picking it back up. I wanted to know what would happen, while at the same time, I dreaded knowing. Southgate grips her reader by the throat and drags her into the lives of the characters.
Despite the sadness, the tragedy, the heartbreak of it all – Southgate does not leave her readers wallowing in grief. She allows for the light to peep through the dark. She gives hope back to Josie when it seems that all hope has been lost.
The Taste of Salt is a powerful book that examines addiction, family roots, diversity, and prejudice. It asks the essential question: Are we ever really able to shed our past?
Readers who are looking for compelling fiction with flawed, but convincing characters, need look no further than Martha Southgate’s affecting novel.
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