As a former editor for Essence magazine, Southgate has long been interested in the tension between successful blacks and white society. In 2007, she published a disarmingly frank essay about the loneliness of being a middle-aged African American woman who writes literary fiction. “There just don’t seem to be that many of us out there,” she wrote, “and that’s something I’ve come to wonder about a great deal.” Her first novel for adults, “The Fall of Rome” (2002), tells the story of the only black teacher at a ritzy white prep school, and her next, “Third Girl From the Left” (2005), followed a young black woman into (and out of) the film industry. Without rancor or blame, her fiction and nonfiction have offered an especially insightful guide to the continuing challenges of America’s integration.
Unfortunately, her new novel makes only a minor contribution to that body of work. The relative weakness of “The Taste of Salt” stems partially from the persistent flatness of its language. The narrative voice that initially seems intimate gradually begins to sound merely lax, such as: “He picked her up like she was a feather — after having two kids! — and carried her to their room, and they made love and this time it was perfect. It was so so sweet.” Or: “My field of study is the behavior of marine mammals, which, let me tell you is not easy. . . . I’ve had to work pretty hard to get to where I belong. But I did it.”
Despite that pedestrian voice, it’s difficult to believe that Josie is really narrating some of the other chapters herself. She begs us to “indulge” her: “I will even imagine scenes I did not witness,” she warns, “speak of the thoughts of other people.” For a marine biologist who claims “Narrative is not my speciality,” these imagined scenes read like impossibly sophisticated works of storytelling. They demonstrate the complicated structure and sympathetic detail that sound a lot more like an experienced fiction writer than a researcher who says rather clunkily: “I’m a scientist. I like to get to the bottom of things.”
Another problem is Southgate’s tendency to wander away from Josie and the issue of her conflicted racial attitudes. Whole chapters are devoted to filling in the details of her parents’ courtship, her father’s subsequent descent into alcoholism and her brother’s agonized efforts to sober up. These are sad, earnest tales, written with an open-hearted gentleness and lack of pretension that’s humane but not particularly original or compelling.
All the attention poured on those other characters’ sad lives tends to dilute what we really want from this story: a fuller, more searching portrayal of a black marine biologist so eager to escape her family’s demons that she starts to lose control of her life. Quick to condemn and cast off the weak men in her family, Josie must eventually confront a sad truth about her own desires, her own lack of willpower. But that fresh story loses its savor among an old one that we already know too well.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.