In essence, this novel is about flawed people with a flawed family, who try to do right, try and lead normal productive lives, and still find themselves in messy, difficult, overwhelming situations. What was refreshing about The Taste of Salt, was that it had atypical Black characters with both typical Black-life problems and typical life problems in equal measure, presented in that universally relatable way that most movies and stories with all white characters are. By that I mean, there’s this tendency to write and view the stories of predominately white characters as being the “everyman’s” story, where the scenario could have happened to anyone, and a white face is the essential blank canvas with which to ensure those scenarios relate to all audiences. When you get stories with predominately POC characters, even if their issues are just as relatable, they suddenly get framed as a niche market–a Black/Latinx/Indian/fill in the blank coming of age story; the same scenarios are presented but are eclipsed by cultural identifiers.
And I’m not saying we should all strive to write universal storylines (that there even is such a thing) or that we should aim for colorblind characterizations. I’m also not saying that there’s anything wrong with writing stories about POC in ways that are unique to those cultures, or that there aren’t cultural nuances that couldn’t fundamentally shape or change the basic narratives of POC. However, not all narratives of Black families happen as they do simply because of some monolithic “Black experience.” I may be somewhat contradicting myself, but essentially what I found interesting was that this novel expanded the boundaries of the Black experience in a way that made it more cross-cultural, or maybe it just made it more relatable to Black people with a different (neither urban north nor deep south) Black experience, which is a vital perspective to have when thinking about the myriad ways we are shoved into boxes that strip away the range of our humanity.
This family could’ve been any family experiencing economic difficulties and deferred dreams that create poor mental health that is self-medicated in socially acceptable ways, that have negative impacts across generations and fracture familial bonds through the process of dealing with addiction and depression. It could’ve been any family, and yet, because it was a Black family it was maybe more provocative because it was talking about issues we don’t typically address as a community or that we don’t necessarily view as a problem. Usually when we talk about addiction and Black people, we’re talking about drug use–crack heads, dope boys, heroin–we’re not usually talking about alcoholism, despite how present alcohol is featured in our media and our acknowledgment of how flooded our communities are with liquor ads. And although we’re getting better at addressing mental health, particularly depression, we still really don’t talk about suicide–either attempts or successes.
Overall, this novel had a compelling story, with well-developed characters, and a particularly unique way of narrating, such that the evolution of the family dynamic is unwound across time, space, and perspective. Reading it is like watching a satisfying movie with a plot that isn’t predictable or trite, doesn’t smother you with a deep political or metaphorical message. While those deeper elements are still there, they’re subtle, coming out through the storytelling rather than being the focus with a storyline fit around it. It’s a poignant read that will keeping you guessing and engaged until the last page.