The Taste of Salt

  • Martha Southgate
  • Algonquin Books
  • 272 pp.

The marine biologist who narrates this novel plumbs the scientific depths of painful family experience.

Reviewed by Amanda Holmes Duffy 

Josie Henderson is a black marine biologist stationed at Woods Hole. She has worked hard to get where she is. She loves the ocean and while observing and tracking data on marine mammals, wonders: “How can you truly get to know an environment that you can’t live in, that you have to have all kinds of equipment even to spend time in?”

Her question alludes to a personal problem. Josie feels cut off from her roots. The city of Cleveland and family struggles with alcohol addiction impact her identity. There’s a hollow place inside her, “this place that needs to be alone, this place that vibrates and can’t sit still.” Furthermore, Josie’s white husband, Daniel, cannot understand, in the way she needs him to, certain things about her background.

So she asks for the reader’s indulgence as she recounts her story — trying on and speaking from the points of view of different family members. “One thing I’ve learned in science is that the first truth you see is rarely the whole truth. I will hypothesize and extrapolate, if you will. I will even imagine scenes I did not witness, speak the thoughts of other people.”

Josie is a scientist. Using Josie’s analytical mind to narrate difficult family events presents author Martha Southgate with a powerful angle into the story. I was reminded of Emily Bronte, who used housekeeper Nelly in Wuthering Heights, with the further filter of cool-headed visitor Lockwood, to recount the story of Heathcliff and Cathy. Bronte’s narrative is cleverly crafted and allows her to write across emotional complexities. It invites the reader deep into the landscape of a difficult story, observing cruelties and passions at a remove.

So I wondered what kind of bias Josie would impose on the events of her narrative, as she tried on the voices of her parents and brother. Would she speak through the wall of her anger? Would she use her scientific ruthlessness to offset the pain?

Unfortunately, The Taste of Salt doesn’t deliver on the challenge author Martha Southgate set for herself. Josie’s point of view is far from scientific and feels too young for the character. Her narrative never gets under the skin of the people she speaks through because Southgate doesn’t use Josie’s anger (evident in later scenes with her lover Ben and her brother Tick) when she imagines their different perspectives. Her confusion and pain are divorced from her struggle to understand the family dynamic. Instead, she resorts to sentimentality.

Josie begins by imagining her parents’ romantic and sexual life — a tall order, which doesn’t work. “He made her laugh harder than anyone she’d ever known. And he was as bright as the day was long, despite his mind deadening job.” The descriptions, like these, are often clichéd. Various characters speak of their lovers having “the sweetest smile I’ve ever seen,” and the parental sex scenes written by a daughter feel just as uncomfortable as you’d expect.

Because the story is narrated in largely sentimental terms, there isn’t enough subtext to offset the superficiality. When Josie dismisses her brother Tick or her father Ray, she comes off as boring rather than emotionally scarred.

She remembers a birthday cake baked for their father, how her father showed up late and her mother swept the cake off the table and onto the floor. In scenes like this, I kept hoping Josie would get in there and struggle with her painful memories, that she would turn the scenes over and analyze them, rendering them more starkly.

Southgate’s dialog is authentic, in that she writes how people speak. But that’s not enough. It doesn’t breathe life into the characters and at times feels lazy.

Interweaving narrative voices were a strength of her acclaimed novel The Fall of Rome.  But the contrivance works less effectively here. The struggles of a family destroyed by addiction and alcohol, and their reluctance to face the issue for fear of, in Josie’s words, “fitting the stereotype of black girl with a no count brother” is certainly potent material. So is the desire to return to one’s roots, however painful and in spite of a successful re-potting. But in the end, The Taste of Salt lacks the depth you might expect from an author like Southgate, and for this reader, wasn’t quite salty enough.

Amanda Holmes Duffy teaches writing at Northern Virginia Community College. She has edited art listings for “Goings On” in The New Yorker. Her stories, published under Amanda Holmes, have appeared in Ploughshares, Rattapallax, Moxie, Sunday Express and on the Ether Books app for download to iPhone.“Russian Music Lessons” a nonfiction piece, is in the latest issue of The Northern Virginia Review.

comments powered by Disqus