Welcome to Imprint Friday and today's featured imprint: Algonquin Books. Stop by each week to be introduced to a must-read title from one of my favorite imprints. I know you'll be adding many of these books to your wish list.
Mark my words, The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate is going to become a much-discussed novel and a book club favorite. Although the back-of-the-book summary may fool you into thinking there's nothing new here, you would be very wrong. Before I tell you why, take a look at the publisher's description:
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.I was immediately drawn to two things about the main character, Josie Henderson: She's from Cleveland and she's a marine biologist. Although I'm from a different Ohio town and my degrees are in a different science, I thought I could relate. I was right, but not in the way I had anticipated. I, of course, understood Josie's need to prove herself professionally as a woman and as a minority. I could also easily picture her childhood home on the shores of Lake Erie. What I didn't expect was how much I would feel for her, despite our myriad differences.
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.
In a conversational style, Josie tells her story, starting from the near past, moving to the distant past, and then catching up us to the present. When she wants to tell her parents' stories or her brother's, she imagines what they might say and tries to fill in the gaps in her knowledge. But her research on marine life has taught her the futility of this kind of thinking:
How can you study something that you can't observe at length? . . . 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? It's the miracle of my work--of our work--that we able to know anything at all. The life beneath us is so unfathomable, and we treat it with such disdain. (p. 5)When Josie can no longer outrun her family or herself, she sees there are many kinds of addictions and many ways to fool yourself into thinking you're above all that. Rock bottom wears a different mask for each addict, sometimes--but not always--leaving a door open to salvation. As Josie shares her addictalogue, we, like the people at her brother's AA meetings, laugh and nod, sigh as the tale gets sadder, and think we know how the story ends (p. 239). But do we?
The simple, straightforward style Southgate uses in The Taste of Salt is deceptive. The emotional punch sneaks up on you, and by the end, your eyes are full and you need some quiet time to process Josie's story. Later, you'll need to talk about the novel and what it says about family, marriage, addiction, and love.
Here are some other thoughts:
- Meredith Maran writing for SFGate.com: "What's new and important about this novel is the depth and breadth of its characters, the four Hendersons of Cleveland, who aren't the kind of white, middle-class familiars whose predicaments we're asked to care about in the vast majority of American literary fiction."
- Publishers Weekly: "Southgate's arresting, fluid prose and authentic dialogue come together in a resonating study of relationships."
Algonquin Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads. For more information about the imprint, please read Executive Editor Chuck Adams's introductory letter, posted here on January 7, 2011.