This review was originally posted on the New York Journal of Books.
Of Women and Salt is a tale of family legacy that juxtaposes the story of four generations of matrilineal descendants in a Cuban family spanning 150 years with the experiences of a lone Salvadoran mother and daughter caught up in the bureaucracy and dehumanization of modern-day US deportation. From a 19th century Cuban cigar factory to present day Miami on the one hand, to a border detention center and an arbitrary landing place in Mexico on the other, the novel’s chapters read like a series of interrelated short stories told from a variety of female perspectives.
Jeanette’s life is the most common thread throughout the book. She lives in a Miami neighborhood where everyone minds their own business. A recovering addict, Jeannette is doing temp work from home when Ana, the daughter of a single mother living next door, is dropped off by the babysitter to an empty home. A moment of connection follows as the young girl knocks on Jeannette’s door: “The girl scans her surroundings, and her eyes stop at Jeanette’s kitchen window. They stare at each other.”
This book is an achievement, with short-story-like chapters that nevertheless follow a satisfying arc.
Earlier in the day, Jeanette had seen ICE agents raid the home and take the little girl’s mother away. Still, Jeanette’s decision to open her door is not easy. After eventually letting the girl in, she feeds her and puts her to bed, then closes the door to her bedroom and Googles “What happens to children if their parents are deported?”
The next day, Jeanette is visited by her mother Carmen, a woman Jeanette describes as “Pearls, slacks, wrinkle cream, a box of blank thank-you notes. Always put together. Always carrying a whiff of her own success and composure like a cardigan at the shoulders. You look at her and just know: here is a woman with answers. So often Jeanette has wondered how she came from such a woman.”
When Carmen discovers her daughter’s desire to take care of Ana, she is incensed, saying, “Jeanette. This is not a game. You’re on probation. You really want to mess everything up again?” The irony is that Carmen, a Cuban immigrant herself, has no compassion for the little girl’s plight. Jeanette asks her, “You’re an immigrant. . . . Do you ever think about how Cubans get all this special treatment . . . Don’t you think it’s your responsibility to give a shit about other people?”
Of Woman and Salt proves that no matter how much one wishes to disassociate with the past, our lives are inextricably wound up with the actions of those who came before us.
And so, the intrigue begins, why did Carmen leave Cuba so many years ago if it wasn’t for political reasons? After hosting Thanksgiving dinner, Carmen shares her perspective on her homeland in relation to her new country: “Cuba this, Cuba that. Cuba Cuba Cuba. Why anyone left a place only to reminisce, to carry its streets into every conversation, to see every moment through the eyes of some imagined loss, was beyond her. Miami existed as such a hollow receptacle of memory, a shadow city, full of people who needed a place to put their past into perspective. Not her. She lived in the present.”
Or she tries to. Of Woman and Salt proves that no matter how much one wishes to disassociate with the past, our lives are inextricably wound up with the actions of those who came before us.
Carmen’s line goes back to Maria Isabel in Camagüey, Cuba, in the year 1866 rolling cigars while her future husband reads aloud from Victor Hugo. Violence abounds for the family and much is kept secret. When Jeanette travels to Cuba in search of answers about her mother, her past, even something of herself, she is hosted by Maydelis, a cousin of her own generation.
Here, the novel offers back-to-back chapters from both women’s points of view, a terrific contrast of worldview. Maydelis’ first reaction to this cousin from America is that she is nothing more than a tourist, blind to her family’s struggle. Maydelis observes, “Jeanette offers to pay but she’s carrying only divisa, not moneda nacional. Constantly she complains about the unfairness of the double-currency system, about how mad she feels paying a commission to exchange dollars into CUCs. There seem so many other easy injustices to point to; I’m frequently amused by what catches her fancy.”
Meanwhile, Jeanette notes of Maydelis, “All she wants to talk about is the United States, what it’s like over there . . . she lists kinds of people that exist in Cuba—freakies, emos, Mickeys, repas. She lists what they wear and what music they listen to and where they hang out and I realize every country is different but the same. Every country has its own lunch tables.”
Of Women and Salt is a beautifully written novel that turns like a kaleidoscope in the light, illuminating the blurry delineation of who is an insider and who an outsider.
And then there is the plight of Gloria and Ana, mother and daughter torn apart by an ICE raid and reunited in a border detention center for families many months after Jeanette discovers Ana at her front door. In a chapter told from Gloria’s point of view, she shares a memory of a Christian missionary who told her as a child, “Despite having so little. . . you are so happy. You could teach the children in my country so much about what’s really important in life.”
Gloria explains that she had never thought of herself as having little. She says of the missionary, “I wondered what she had expected: sad poor people being sad and poor at every sad, poor moment of their lives? She mistook happiness for what it was—how we survive and build lives out of the strings that we hold.” The women in Of Woman and Salt do just that—they build lives out of the strings they hold.
Gloria’s assessment of an outsider judging what she couldn’t possibly understand underscores a recurring theme in this book, aided by the narrative technique of multiple points of view. Examples of racism and the stratification to which human beings are subject fill Gabriela Garcia’s novel. When Jeanette is in Cuba she observes her grandmother’s blatant racism toward a neighbor who is Black, but she notes, “it isn’t as though Black Cubans fare better in Miami, where racism is polite, quiet. This is the fact: In Miami, Cuban is synonymous with white. In Miami, Cubans will scoff when you call them Latino. ‘I’m not Latino, I’m Cuban,’ they will say. By which I mean, I am white, another kind of white you don’t know about, outsider.”
Of Women and Salt is a beautifully written novel that turns like a kaleidoscope in the light, illuminating the blurry delineation of who is an insider and who an outsider. The chapters build upon each other, offering the reader cumulative insight and a sense of dramatic irony. But even while the reader understands much more than any given character ever does, the author also allows precious white space where the reader can come to her own conclusions. This book is an achievement, with short-story-like chapters that nevertheless follow a satisfying arc. Even better, they culminate in a redeeming and emotional ending.