Martha Southgate explores the world of Josie Henderson, a successful black scientist living in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, doing the work with marine life that she has always dreamed of doing. She is also about as far away from her Cleveland, Ohio upbringing as she can get. The world she lives in now is largely a white one, and though it includes a man who loves her very much, he finds he can’t reach her emotionally. There also isn’t a place for her recovering alcoholic father, alcoholic brother, and overwhelmed mother. Josie’s mother asks that she make a trip home to accompany her brother from rehab, and she connects unexpectedly with a new co-worker – two things which serve as a catalyst for the walls she has carefully constructed to start slowly tumbling down.
The Taste of Salt is a captivating read, and the more I learned about Josie and her family, the harder it was for me to put the book down without knowing what would happen to them. Southgate takes a fresh narrative approach, with Josie admitting that in order to have some understanding of what has happened in her life she has to imagine her family’s story from their perspective. The reader gets to hear these other voices directly, even though they are only as Josie imagines them. The technique subtly heightens the poignancy of the read as you realize how much a usually disconnected Josie is trying to make sense of the events of her life.
Southgate also balances a line that can be difficult for authors – writing characters who are remote and at a remove from people and events in their lives. Josie was very closed off- and I’m not even sure how much I really liked her- but her story was always compelling for me to read. I understood how she could see some things so clearly as a scientist, but get it so wrong as a human being. Her relationships with her boyfriend and co-worker are prime examples of reaching for comfort based on the superficial and instinctual, rather than what is tried and true. Classifications that Josie would probably have rejected in science make sense to the fragile and emotionally damaged woman she has never dealt with. The need to isolate herself from her family, especially the brother whom she loves so much, dominates her life, but is also the source of deep guilt.
The Taste of Salt is a finely woven story with notes of tragedy and hope. Southgate delicately limns a family in trouble, and a daughter who has run as far from the devastating effects of alcoholism as she can get, only to realize that it isn’t as easy to run from herself or to escape her own destructive tendencies. Highly Recommended.