The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate – Book Review

In the Taste of Salt, 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.

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Review copies of The Taste of Salt were provided by Algonquin Books for discussion in BOOK CLUB. Discuss it today at Devourer of Books.

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  1. Nicely done. As I mentioned in my review / Imprint Friday post, I think this will make a fantastic book club selection. A lot of layers to the book and much to discuss.

  2. Very beautiful review! I have heard that most of the characters in this book are unlikable, but that is not really a problem for me. I can usually get around that if the plot is tight, and it sounds like this one was. Like Candace says, this book seems perfect for a book club, so I am going to have to point my group towards it!

  3. Great review Nicole. I have been on the fence with this one, probably because the protagonist is so unlikable. You always manage to bring out the best in a book though, so maybe I’m worrying over nothing.

    1. I found Josie distant and cold. I had trouble identifying with her, because I just don’t view life with the same lens. However, I did not dislike her. I found her refreshing because she is just so different from the usual “strong female protagonist” fare I’ve picked up in the past. I liked seeing the cracks deepen and how she would respond to them.

  4. Fantastic review. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about this aspect of it before, but now it’s obvious to me that she chose her profession in science to directly combat the “unknown” in her life. She needed something that allowed her to fit all of the pieces together nicely…a profession in which she could come up with the answers through the nice, neat equations that science provided her with. She couldn’t do this with her personal life, so she held herself together with science. Thank you for the revelation.

  5. Great review! There’s a lot of good things in this novel but I just wished there were more. Your description of Josie as being “fragile and emotionally damaged” is perfect!