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The Taste of Salt

by Martha Southgate

Algonquin Books | 2011

Reviewed by Brenda M. Greene

The sea was never strange to me.  It was on land that I had difficulties, my lack of comprehension, my estrangement.

            In The Taste of Salt, Martha Southgate, author of Third Girl on the Left (2006) and The Fall of Rome (2002)examines the presence of “salt” in the life of Josie Henderson, a marine scientist, and a Black woman in a field where there are not only few women, but few Black scientists in general.  Josie, estranged from her past, has built an insular life for herself, and in doing so, has distanced herself from her family, has run away from intimacy and has married outside of her race.  Southgate explores how Josie is forced to face her past and the broken and vulnerable parts of her life.

Salt, bitter, stinging, essential to the human body and a necessary component of life, is used as a preservative, but can be harmful if consumed in excess. One can become addicted to salt and like other addictions, too much salt can destroy one’s life.  Those who engage in addictive behaviors become dysfunctional and dangerous to themselves and those around them.

Josie is the daughter of an alcoholic and sister of a drug user. In trying to escape the salt in her life and hence her family, she finds that the inner loss and emptiness she feels in attempting to shed her past instead permeates her life.  Although she throws herself into work, into marriage and into a relationship with another man, the loneliness does not dissipate; the salt of life engulfs her.

On learning about a tragedy in her family, she states,

“I stared at the ceiling.  There was pressure behind my eyes. But I wasn’t crying. I felt salty. Alone. Despite Daniel lying next to me. . . I felt like the middle of the Sahara, a place I’ve never been. . . I felt like a woman with no brother, no husband, no one to call her own.”

Josie thus comes to realize that she cannot ignore the shattered and fractured pieces of her life.

Southgate’s language is clear, precise and definitive.  Her story is sensitively told from multiple perspectives: Josie, her brother Tick and her mother and father, Sarah and Ray.  This telling adds depth to the novel and provides the reader with a more complex portrait of Josie, who as a child, “. . . liked being out of the house. Whatever house it was.”

The Book of Salt is a reminder that the past is ever present and attempts to escape it seldom succeed.  Southgate’s exploration of the themes of loneliness, relationships, loss, addiction and interracial relationships brings to the surface the fears and secrets that many have difficulty facing and addresses the issues that many deal with in this contemporary society that is America.

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