The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate

The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate is the tumultuous tale of Josie Henderson and her family.  Josie is a successful scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, but the journey that helped her achieve her dream was wrought with sadness and anger.  Her brother “Tick,” once her ally against their alcoholic father, has just emerged from another stint in rehab and seeking her help, which brings to the forefront everything Josie has tried to push aside and avoid.

The narrative begins in Josie’s point of view and then shifts to that of her mother, her father, her brother, and her husband Daniel.  Southgate is trying to tell a well-rounded story about heartbreak and disappointment, but readers may find the additional points of view unnecessary.  Even without the other perspectives, Josie’s voice is solid enough to carry the entire story.

“Nothing had changed and everything had changed.  I worked better than I had in months on my grant, suddenly inspired;” (Page 160)

Salt can build up and make the mouth water with its bitterness, but often the hunger for salt can take over.  In this way, Southgate’s novel is about that hunger that comes when we search to fill an emptiness within us with the nearest object or pleasure (i.e. alcohol, drugs, sex).  Josie’s brother and father are addicted to alcohol and/or drugs, but while Josie has become successful in her career and married an intelligent man, she’s looking to fill her own holes.  Her addiction is different from that of her father and brother, but no less dangerous.

“Life weighs a ton.  That’s why I love the water.  Nothing weighs anything there.”  (Page 7)

Southgate’s characters are multi-faceted and struggling.  Josie has pushed her issues to the back, but they are still a weight around her neck, dragging her down.  Tick knows he’s lost and continues to struggle for level ground, but their father has found redemption through the 12-step program and more.  He hit rock bottom and lost it all.  The story arc here is not surprising, and Josie doesn’t really lose her critical streak of other’s life decisions, even when she is choosing wrongly for herself.  However, perhaps that’s one of the problems with addiction.  Meanwhile, there seems to be a particular emphasis on race, but its connection to the addiction story line is not clearly drawn and leaves readers wondering what truths Southgate is trying to uncover.  It almost feels as though race is a crutch being used by the main character to justify her actions, which is bothersome.

Through frank prose, Southgate dives deep into the psyche of addicts to explore the turmoil created and the pull of home even when you try to run from the past.  The Taste of Salt is an exploration of the love and bitterness of addiction, how it tears families and individuals apart, and the depth of love that keeps families moving forward.

About the Author:

Martha Southgate is the author of four novels. Her newest, The Taste of Salt, is published by Algonquin Books. Her previous novel, Third Girl from the Left, won the Best Novel of the Year award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was shortlisted for the PEN/Beyond Margins Award and the Hurston/Wright Legacy award. Her novel The Fall of Rome received the 2003 Alex Award from the American Library Association and was named one of the best novels of 2002 by Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post. She is also the author of Another Way to Dance, which won the Coretta Scott King Genesis Award for Best First Novel. She received a 2002 New York Foundation for the Arts grant and has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. Her July 2007 essay from the New York Times Book Review, “Writers Like Me” received considerable notice and appears in the anthology Best African-American Essays 2009. Previous non-fiction articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine,O, Premiere, and Essence.


I originally read this for Book Club at Devourer of Books, with Linus’s Blanket.



This is my 70th book for the 2011 New Authors Reading Challenge.


  1. Addiction is a tough subject. Sounds like the author tackled it quite well.

  2. This is the second review I’ve read of this one and you both pretty much had similar thoughts. I really did like your insightful views on the title. Great review, Serena. You have a gift for words.

  3. Serena, I definitely agree with you on this book especially when it came to race. It just wasn’t enough there. Great review.

    • Glad to hear I wasn’t alone on that one. I commented on the book discussion late, so I wasn’t sure what others thought about that.

  4. The cover is so striking as is the premise — too bad it didn’t wholly satisfy. I don’t mind unappealing characters now and then but I need a book to be spectacular to hold me then. I’ll probably pass on this — I’ve seen pretty uneven reviews — as it’s not quite my taste. I loved your analysis of the title with the story, btw!

    • I really picked this book up without expectations, which is unusual for me. It was an unsolicited review copy, and I thought what the heck. I liked the title and thought about it the whole time I was reading. I wanted to know what it meant.

  5. I love multi-faceted, struggling characters. I love this cover, too.

  6. I’m glad you focused on a possible meaning for the title, especially since it’s not obvious based on the book summary. After all the reviews I’ve read, I’m leaning toward skipping this one. Great review, as always, and glad you enjoyed the Book Club discussion.

  7. Terrific review, Serena – I liked how you analyzed the title (titles always interest me!)…and yes, great discussion book!

    • I always wonder about titles too. I just can’t help think, why this title? Now the cover of this one really is nice, but doesn’t speak to the contents of the story.

  8. Interesting observation about the salt. I never did really get what that was about! I agree with you about the race. As you know, I was disappointed Josie never got any insights into her own addictiveness, nor did she develop any compassion for others. She was so cold and judgmental and focused only on her self that I just didn’t like her!

    • I didn’t like Josie, and normally that doesn’t keep me from liking a book, but there were other things in this book that just didn’t coalesce for me.

  9. The reviews of this book seem to be mixed, but it sounds like a book I’d like.

  10. I’m thinking that this one might be a really good discussion book!

  11. Alexis @ Reflections of a Bookaholic says

    I really enjoyed this book. Personally, I enjoyed the different point of views. I felt like it gave a more well-rounded story. Great review.


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