This week Hannah Whittaker is looking at the historical fiction novel Of Women and Salt by American writer, poet, and journalist, Gabriela Garcia.
I truly think that certain works of historical fiction are hugely underrated by readers. Although being fictional, these historical novels will often draw upon major events from the past when developing their stories. History is a powerful thing, something that I believe we all need to be reminded of to see how far we have come and how far we still have to go in terms of numerous issues.
I was always hesitant towards historical fiction because of the association that I had with it as a subject at school, one of which was definitely not my strongest. But, by delving into the world of historical books, fictional and non-fictional, I have grown to love reading and learning about history. Of Women and Salt has definitely added to this love of mine as, weeks after I finished the book, I still find myself thinking about it every day and recommending it to everyone I possibly can.
This debut novel from Garcia follows the lives of mothers and daughters through six generations. As you turn onto the first page of the book, you are provided with a very handy family tree. This tree proved to be extremely helpful throughout the whole book as, when I got so lost in the mothers and daughters’ relationships, I could quickly flick to the front to regain my orientation of the family. It is such a small addition to the book but, in my opinion, a vital one.
We are taken through the lives of Maria Isabel, a cigar factory worker living in Cuba where there is political upheaval, right through to Jeanette, who in 2016 is fighting for her life against drug addiction. Maria Isabel is only presented to the reader at the beginning of the book, and it soon becomes clear that this novel is one of understanding one’s family history. Each woman must face their own hardships whilst drawing on their heritage and cultural history to save themselves. Within the immense number of themes and issues that Garcia draws on in her novel, the overarching message supports the determination and courage of Cuban women who are negotiating how to survive in this world, whether it was in 1866 or 2016.
There were so many elements of this book that I admired, but arguably, my favourite was the range of themes that Garcia managed to effectively cover in just 200 pages. From motherhood and family through to immigration and addiction, Garcia has the incredible talent of giving each issue enough time and care to make them all impactful. The story of the mother and daughter, Gloria and Anna, who are separated in the process of being deported from America was especially profound and highlighted the humane issues of the American deportation and immigration systems. We are drawn into the world of women who face the fear of displacement every day and those like Anna who are suddenly forced to liveindependently in a foreign country at such young ages.
Gloria and Anna’s stories subtly link into the life of Carmen and her daughter, Jeanette, who suffers from addiction. The lives of these two families appear to be starkly different, but a few generations ago, Jeanette’s ancestors were facing the same problem of fleeing their country in hope of a better life.
After Jeanette’s drug addiction and dependence on an emotionally and physically abusive partner reaches its peak, she realises her issues are deep-rooted in her lack of understanding of her mother’s life and complacency with her own abusive husband. Jeanette ultimately has to partake in her own journey through her family’s history in order to save herself.
The different narratives from each woman gives the reader a different perspective of similar situations through a range of tones, tenses, times, and powerful voices.
The violent and tumultuous nature of these women’s lives do make this book fairly difficult to read. However, these are ongoing topics which need discussion and need to be written about. Within the 12 intertwining storylines Garcia does not hold back when describing the pain and suffering that these Cuban women have faced, but her focus on their optimism, self-discovery, and perseverance means that one is able to have a more involved and positive reading experience of such difficult topics.
The relationship between Jeanette and her mother Carmen is probably given the most attention and is one that made me experience an extensive range of emotions while reading. But, if I was to criticise one thing about this book, it would be the minimal attention given to Gloria and Anna’s story, which I found myself wanting to hear more of.
These two families’ lives intertwine early on in the book as Gloria is taken by immigration officers while her daughter Anna is at school. Jeanette, being her neighbour, looks after Anna after she’s seen her mother being taken away, but ultimately, Carmen talks Jeanette into calling the police to take Anna.
I think this particular moment kick-started Jeanette’s progression towards sobriety and discovering her heritage.
Jeanette and Anna’s brief encounter comes full circle at the end of the novel when Anna returns to America after her mother’s death in search of this woman who she thought had tried to save her from deportation. Anna’s return to America highlights the way that motherhood is represented throughout the novel: that even those mothers that faced tragedy and trauma are able to find the strength to help their daughters or someone else’s.
I found Gloria and Anna’s story so profound because they were facing these immigration struggles more currently than the other characters, and I found myself wanting a better outcome for Anna’s character.
This is an absolutely beautiful novel that covers so much tragedy whilst simultaneously being a delight to read and I can’t recommend it enough!
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