Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Review: The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate

My family's always maintained that you are either a lake person or an ocean person (assuming you like the water, I guess). I've always been a lake person. I don't particularly like the taste of salt water and I loathe sand. I grew up paddling around in fresh water and yet when I learned to scuba dive last year, it was like coming home for me. Like Josie Henderson in Martha Southgate's The Taste of Salt, I was not raised in close proximity with the ocean but I have always felt the pull of water. And although it took me a long time to come to feel the salt water running through my veins, I ache to get back under the ocean again.

Josie Henderson is a well respected marine biologist working at the acclaimed Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts. As if being a woman wasn't rare enough in her field, she is also a black woman and she delights in her uniqueness. Her husband Daniel is an icthyologist at Woods Hole. He is a gentle, milquetoast sort of man, native to the area, and interested in starting a family that Josie is fairly certain she doesn't want. He is also white , making Josie suspect that he cannot possibly understand her or where she has come from.

Where she has come from is a suburb of Cleveland, far from the ocean, where her father spent her entire childhood sunk deep into a bottle and her mother worked as a nurse to support Josie and her charismatic younger brother Tick after she kicked their father out. Josie doesn't like to share her dysfunctional family situation with anyone and would prefer to keep them in her past but when her mother asks her to come home and collect Tick from his latest stint at rehab, she can't say no. And when Tick subsequently shows up at her door with no where else to go, she takes him in, despite knowing that he is still in the clutches of his own alcoholism.

Although she has worked hard to distance herself from her family, Josie is clearly damaged by her childhood as the daughter of an alcoholic. She sabotages her relationships and never lets anyone too close to her. Her best and favorite coping strategy is avoidance. While Josie is the catalyst around whom the story unfolds, each of her family members also narrates portions of their own tale as well, showing the all around damage that an addiction inflicts on not only the alcoholic but on the alcoholic's loved ones as well.

The novel takes place in the present but also has flashbacks to Josie's parents' meeting and courtship, her father's migration from the South to the North, echoing many working class blacks of the time, and his gradual descent into alcoholism when Josie and Tick were small. Southgate also confronts the continued realities of racism in this day and age through both the successful Josie's eyes and through down and out Tick's eyes.

The multiple narrators help to move the story along and to fill in the blanks where other characters couldn't possibly know the truth but the characters' individual voices aren't quite different enough to make them easy for the reader to immediately differentiate between. Josie as a character isn't terribly likable. She is so self-centered and selfish that it is hard to sympathize with her character. She treads all over her nice and unassuming husband without explaining her feelings to him at all and giving him a chance to be who she needs him to be. Brother Tick is a fairly stereotypical addict and there's never any doubt where his storyline is going. But despite these flaws, there's a grace and a beauty in the ending that ultimately helps to make the book more hopeful than dysfunctional. An interesting perspective on the casualties of addiction, the roles of family, and of race, this would provide a lot of fodder for book clubs to dicuss.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.

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