- The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate
- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Algonquin Books (September 13, 2011)
- ISBN-13: 978-1565129252
Back-of-the-book blurb: Award-winning novelist Martha Southgate tells the story of a family pushed to its limits by addiction over the course of two generations.
Josie Henderson loves the water and is fulfilled by her position as the only senior-level black scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. In building this impressive life for herself, she has tried to shed the one thing she cannot: her family back in landlocked Cleveland. Her adored brother, Tick, was her childhood ally as they watched their drinking father push away all the love that his wife and children were trying to give him. Now Tick himself has been coming apart and demands to be heard.
Weaving four voices into a beautiful tapestry, Southgate charts the lives of the Hendersons from the parents’ first charmed meeting to Josie’s realization that the ways of the human heart are more complex than anything seen under a microscope.
She Is Too Fond of Books’ thoughts: Josie Henderson is a thirty-six year old woman whose form of addiction is to her salaried work as a marine biologist, and to her unpaid work – hard work – at creating a distance between herself and her family; she believes that she efficiently and effectively has left her past and the skeletons in her family closet back in Cleveland.
At the opening of The Taste of Salt, Josie is collecting her brother, Tick, from a rehab center, and bringing him to their mother’s house. Their mother, Sarah, plans to keep an eye on him, encouraging his sobriety. She will be aided in this by Tick’s father, Ray, from who she has been divorced for years. Ray is himself a former alcoholic, with several years of sobriety under his belt.
Tick’s nickname is a clue to his personality, and to the presence he will be in Josie’s life as the book moves forward. I think of the name as symbolic, like Poe’s “Telltale Heart.” Josie describes how he earned his moniker:
My brother is nicknamed Tick, because when he was little, he was such a fast and efficient crawler that my father said he was just like a little watch – ticktock, ticktock. That go shortened to Tick and it stuck. That’s what everybody calls him.
Josie resents Tick and all that he represents – all those parts of her family that threaten to bring her down from her perch as a respected executive at the Woods Hole research center on Cape Cod.
She also holds a grudge against her father, and can’t (won’t) forgive him for the hurt he has caused in the past. This scene is also from near the beginning of the book (p. 32), when Josie and Tick have first arrived at their mother’s house from the rehab. I found it interesting that, despite the distance she cultivates, Josie refers to her father as “Daddy” and her mother as “my mother:”
Daddy … steps toward me. I stand up and he puts his arms around me. Like an awkward teenager, I stand there with my arms hanging straight down my sides. He pushes me away from him and looks into my eyes but doesn’t speak. He sighs and turns to my mother, saying, “So, Sarah – we’ll talk?”
“Yes, Ray. We will.” She gives him a real hug and walks him to the door. Tick and I stare after them, united in bafflement and anxiety, like we used to be. Not like two people in their thirties. More like a couple of kids.
I chose these quotes in order to share that this novel uses addiction as a metaphor for those complicated relationships – including family – that we just can’t quit (p. 185):
I wanted to feel the way I felt … That’s an addiction, of course. But you can never get back that first high. You just keep looking for it, no matter how much damage you cause.
I really liked this novel because it made me think – about my own families (that is, the family I was raised in, and the family J and I are raising now), about whatever in my past I’ve tried (successfully or not) to leave behind, and about those relationships/habits that are so deeply woven into me that I can’t disengage from them.
Oh, but I didn’t like the protagonist … which makes me wonder further — are the traits I disliked in the fictional Josie somehow mirroring traits I don’t care for in myself? You see, A Taste of Salt really did make me think! And I continue to do so …
Using a frame of addictive behavior, A Taste of Salt explores family and relationships, stymying the protagonist, who wants her life to be objective/measurable (like her chosen field), not subjective and influenced by emotion.