A reader coming to the end of Martha Southgate’s devastating fourth novel might think, “What did the Hendersons do to deserve this?” For they are a normal American family whose members are, at heart, kind and decent—and yet they struggle with more than their share of problems.

The Taste of Salt is narrated by the daughter of the family, Josie, an African-American marine biologist. She is drawn to her profession, perhaps, because her love of the water has always been a refuge from a difficult family life. In chapters that alternate between past and present, Josie tries to puzzle out how her family got to be the way it is. She wonders especially about her father and her brother, for Ray and Tick are both alcoholics. Maybe for Ray, her father, it was thwarted literary ambition, or the pressures of being an African-American man trying to raise a family in a dying industrial city. Who knows? The reasons for the handsome and charming Tick to fall as far as he does are even less explicable—he’s not only an alcoholic but has an off-and-on drug problem as well. Sarah, the stalwart wife and mother, always willing to support her men, is still healthy enough to know she can’t live with her husband; she finally kicks Ray out when Josie and Tick are young adults. But when the grown-up Tick comes home and begins to drink and drug again, Sarah can’t bring herself to turn her son away.

Not even Josie escapes. Though she’s neither an alcoholic nor an addict, her family’s troubles have taught her to armor herself emotionally, which affects her marriage to the gentle and goodhearted Daniel. She’s cruel to him, unintentionally, almost helplessly. She embarks on a crazy affair with a colleague that she doesn’t much trouble to hide. She refuses to have the children that her husband wants, a refusal that seems to occur even on a cellular level. Moreover, Josie won’t have anything to do with her father or brother unless it’s absolutely necessary. And it becomes absolutely necessary sooner than she’d like. With compassion and a quiet grief, Southgate examines the ways families self-destruct even as they try to hold it together.

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