You know there are some books you read that have very simple plots to explain. Like, Cinderella is a story about a girl whose mom dies and she has to live with her evil stepmother who treats her like a slave until her fairy godmother shows up and turns her life around. Well, Martha Southgate's haunting new novel, The Taste of Salt isn't like that. There's no clear beginning and happily ever afters are nowhere to be found and yet it is a story about a troubled family, about love and in some ways about believing that salvation can come in the arms of the right man. And yes, there are major daddy issues.
If I had to be more specific in my descriptions, I'd say The Taste of Salt is a story about a middle-class, African-American family destroyed by addiction. The father is an alcoholic as his son. The wife feels herself powerless to help either her husband or son and daughter, Josie just wants to get as far away from the whole clan as possible. And really The Taste of Salt is Josie's story. At the beginning of the novel, Josie is in her mid-thirties, a successful scientist living in Woods Hole, one of the only Black people on staff at the prestigious Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. She's married to a White man and happily has no children. Her life is neat and orderly and she hardly ever has to think about her painful childhood back in Cleveland. Until her mother calls to tell her that her brother, Tick has fallen off the wagon, again.
It is Tick's stint in rehab that truly sets of the life-altering chain of events that occur in the book. Josie goes back to Cleveland to help her mother deal with her brother and subsequently her well-ordered life starts to unravel as she trips through the memories and pain.
The reason I enjoyed this book so much, besides Southgate's masterful and mesmerizing storytelling, is that while one could consider this a book about addiction, it really is a story about an American family trying their best to capture the American dream. But the booze keeps thwarting everyone's efforts. Southgate goes all the way back to Josie's parents' meeting to explain how they got to today. She humanizes the plight of so many people struggling with substance abuse by giving us an individual story. The fact that the family is Black is inconsequential, yet refreshing to this reader as it is always validating to fall in love with characters that look like the people in your own life.
All told, The Taste of Salt is a compelling, thought-provoking, page-turning drama. I gobbled it up in two days. The characters are real, not romanticized and their reality will resonate with many people touched by addiction of all sorts. A perfect book-club read, The Taste of Salt gets two Meltingpot thumbs up.
P.S. If you haven't read Southgate's other novels, Third Girl From the Left and The Fall of Rome you are truly missing out. Seriously. Go read them and tell me what you think.