Review by Clara Oropeza
From what corners of our lives do we summon the will to survive the wickedness of life? This seems to be a central question in Of Women and Salt the debut novel by Gabriela Garcia. And like in life, the novel does not propose a single answer.
The story is structured around the polyvocal and intertwining lives of seven multigenerational women across time and geographies. The emphasis on setting and time at the start of each chapter is a reminder that the land to which each character is born, and the generations that educate them, shapes their sense of themselves. These women belong to their mother’s land, and within their own lands.
In the first pages we are introduced to Carmen’s voice as she pleads with her only daughter, Jeanette, to will life against death: “tell me that you want to live.” Later, we hear about Dolores’s strength to ward off her husband’s abusive power while regaining her own secret strength: “Dolores didn’t see. She felt: a roaring beast in her gut, salivating, frothing from another chance to open her mouth and form a word, any word. The beast found ferocity in her she’d never again recover.” Here, and throughout the novel, the prose echoes the magnetism found in magical realism.
Gloria, meanwhile an immigrant from El Salvador living in Miami, is uprooted and separated from her young daughter, Ana. Finally, the two are reunited in Texas, where later “they’d been dropped off over the border in Mexico instead of flown to El Salvador and no one kept track of them.”
A central tension in the novel can be captured in Jeanette’s words: “We are more than we think we are.” Garcia often alludes to women drawing strength to “will” life from their mother-line. Could this include the strength that comes from knowing the stories of their matrilineal kinship, including the multigenerational traumas, stories about immigration, family separation, and physical and sexual abuse in patriarchal society?
Throughout the novel, there are daughters who want to set mothers free: “Her very job, Ana thought, had been not to grieve, so that her mother could.” As for the mothers in the novel, they, similarly, want nothing but to save their daughters from pain. Yet, it is often this conflict that divides mothers and daughters.
In this way, the novel can be seen as a mother-map of the lives that help women negotiate life’s perils against patriarchal abuse, distorting their path toward freedom.
The cover of the book is an image of aquamarine waters, the horizon covered in a peach-pink sky. An oversized pink-and-red, shaded with orange poppy stems from the sea. The rhythmic imagery of sea and sky mirrors “the salt of her sweat,” “salt whipping into water,” and “salt soaked, sand breaded” imagery peppered throughout the novel. This realm of a feminine landscape brings to my mind Ursula Le Guins idea that “female solidarity might be called fluidity – a stream or river rather than a structure.” The cast of female characters in Of Women and Salt, whose lives are inseparable from the mothers, seem to disembark from the shores of feminine solidarity that Garcia herself knows well. In an interview with the New York Times, Garcia writes: “I had all sisters, my mother had all sisters, my grandmother had all sisters. I was raised by a single mother and I never felt a lack in that.”
Through tightly woven prose and a strong narrative power, Garcia elevates the complex lives of women to our consciousness. In this novel, we discover varying experiences of womanhood from the points of view of women whose stories are often under-represented in fiction yet, vividly alive in our own lives. I am always eager to hear the voices of Latina characters whose experiences hold archetypal resonance. These stories will find meaning with anyone who has ever meditated on being “more than we think we are.”