From the cigar factories of 19th century Cuba to sleazy Miami nightclubs and a family detention center in Texas, Gabriela Garcia’s debut novel, Of Women and Salt, follows the lives of women fighting to survive in countries and relationships hellbent on destroying them.
The titular “salt” of the novel could refer to the salt of sweat, sea, or tears – as all have a place in this compact but sweeping novel. The story spans five generations of women who move across the borders of the United States, El Salvador, Cuba, Mexico, escaping the violence inflicted upon them by countries and men.
Garcia’s novel is comprised of multiple, interconnected narratives that move backward and forward through time and place while shifting between characters. Jeanette, a young woman raised in Miami struggling with addiction, plays a central role in this story. She is the daughter of Carmen, who fled her birth country of Cuba for the United States.
Jeanette’s relationship with Carmen is fraught. The women love each other deeply but struggle to be open with one another. Jeanette wants to know why her mother moved to the United States and why she’s never been allowed to visit her grandmother in Cuba. She wants to confront her history, and Carmen is committed to forgetting it. “Politics” is the dissatisfactory and evasive answer Carmen offers her daughter when asked why she left. The word itself is reminiscent of how we have come to tell the stories of those who flee – how easy it is to point to “politics” and leave it at that, how much more painful, but urgent, it is to hear and tell the human stories— what is politics divorced from people?
Garcia lets no one off the hook. The novel confronts what the characters themselves may fear to face. This is a story of addiction, physical and sexual violence, state violence, deportation, and the lengths women must go to in order to survive.
In addition to Jeanette and her matrilineage, we follow another story; a woman named Ana and her mother Gloria have fled gang violence in El Salvador and are living in Miami. When Gloria is taken to a deportation center after an ICE raid, Ana seeks help from her neighbor, Jeanette. In such brief and fleeting moments, the two families intersect.
Because the novel is not linear, the foreboding and inevitability of the characters’ fates weigh heavily upon the reader. We return to the characters’ earlier years often knowing too much already of their futures. This fact is always in tension with the women’s unrelenting attempts to assert control over their lives, the whirring engine at the novel’s core.
Meanwhile, history unfolds – Cuban rebellions, liberation, revolution, the Obama administration, ICE – throughout, the focus remains on how the world pushes itself against the women, and how the women do their best to push back.
This is also a story about mothers, and how mothers and daughters fight, and fight for¸ one another. Garcia avoids neat tales of superhero moms and forgiving daughters, although the book is full of familial tenderness. The mothers we meet are exhausted and bitter, mothers who feel as though they are failing their daughters – how do we protect our children from what we don’t know? What about that which we have no control over?
Garcia’s interrogation of family is often heartening, but always unflinching: “Her mother wasn’t the doting type. Ana had made her a card once, for Mother’s Day, and written Thank you for sacrificing everything for me. ‘Is that what you think?’ Gloria asked her that night. ‘That I’m supposed to sacrifice everything for you?’”
Slippage between narrators, families, countries, and generations could make for a disjointed and disorienting novel, but Garcia’s prose grounds us in place and we are transported effortlessly: “Texas heat is different from Florida heat. Florida heat licks the skin. […] Texas heat is sometimes dry, like flying just above a burning house.”
In its attempt to give voice to such a breadth of characters, we are left feeling we’ve come to know some better than others. The chapter set in a cigar-rolling factory in 1866, told from the perspective of María-Isabel (Jeanette’s great-great-grandmother), gives us only a glimpse into her life. Nor are we allowed to sit in the story of Ana and Gloria for as long as we’d like. Still, to cover so much ground, both figuratively and literally, in such a concise novel takes skill, and no lyricism or poetry is compromised in the task.
Deportation, racism, as well as domestic, sexual, and substance abuse make this an emotional novel with few moments of relief. “’Who’d want to leave such a beautiful country?’ As if anything were about beauty. Or want.” It is “a cry across a time,” a cry passed down through bloodlines and stories. But crying out what? “Certain women? We are more than we think we are.”