The Taste of Salt – Book Review

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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FTC Disclosure: Many thanks to Algonquin Books who sent me this book as part of BOOK CLUB. The discussion of this book will occur on November 14th at Jen’s blog: Devourer of Books.

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  1. Wow, this sounds like a gripping story!

    • Kailana on November 8, 2011 at 16:20

    This sounds really good. Nice review!

  2. I didn’t like Josie – I couldn’t believe she was so judgmental when she herself was far from perfect! But it was definitely an fast and good read.

    • Wendy on November 9, 2011 at 07:10

    Thanks, Kailana.

    Jill: I don’t think we were supposed to love Josie – she was definitely flawed. Interestingly she turned her back on her family (and her culture) because of shame…and yet she went on to self-destruct and shame herself. It was ironic. I didn’t like her either, but I empathized with her.

    • Wendy on November 9, 2011 at 07:11

    Kathy: I loved it!

    • Serena on November 9, 2011 at 07:19

    I have this book, and I hope to get to it in time for book club. It sounds tragic….I cannot wait to read it though. I have a thing for stories about oceanographers…not sure what that’s about really.

    • Wendy on November 9, 2011 at 07:32

    Serena: Must be that innate biological pull of our roots since we all supposedly came from the water at some point LOL! This is a really fast read…so you could probably get it read before Book Club…would love to discuss it with you!

    • Serena on November 9, 2011 at 07:34

    I will try my best. I’m starting We the Animals today and then its off to Camp Nine before I can get the Taste of Salt! LOL

    • Wendy on November 9, 2011 at 07:54

    Thanks for the reminder that I have We The Animals still to read!

    • Anna on November 9, 2011 at 08:06

    Sounds like a great book! I don’t think I’ll be able to read it for Book Club, though. I’ll have to make time for it at some point, though, because I don’t want to miss out on what sounds like a beautifully written book!

    • zibilee on November 9, 2011 at 10:42

    It sounds as if this one was powerful and astute, and I am looking forward to reading it when I get the chance. Your reaction had me smiling. Almost as if you were covering your eyes, and peeking between your fingers! Great review today!

  3. I’m starting this one tonight, and your review just made me even more excited! I’ll look forward to the discussion on Tuesday too. Glad you loved this one!

    • gavin on November 11, 2011 at 17:19

    I really enjoyed The Fall of Rome and hope to read this one soon. Thanks for a lovely review, Wendy.

    • Wendy on November 15, 2011 at 07:16

    Anna: I hope you’ll enjoy it.

    Heather: LOL – yes, it was a little like that 🙂

    Carrie: Looking forward to discussing this one with you!

    Gavin: This is my first Southgate novel – but now I want to read more of her work…good to know The Fall of Rome is a good one.

    • Heather on November 15, 2011 at 08:41

    Great review. I read the book fairly quickly because I couldn’t put it down, but after it was over I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s very moving while reading, and even more so when you’re done and have time to sit back and think about everything in the story.

    • Wendy on November 15, 2011 at 08:52

    Heather: I agree – this is a very deep book even though it reads fast. The more we talk about it, the more I see the brilliance of it.

    • Serena on November 16, 2011 at 18:35

    I didn’t like Josie either, but this story gripped me from the beginning and I think its because it was like a train wreck or a car crash and I couldn’t look away from this dysfunctional family.

    • Wendy on December 4, 2011 at 18:56

    Serena: I know what you mean – it was unputdownable.

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