Updated: Jul 9, 2021
In Of Women and Salt, Gabriela Garcia examines mother-daughter relationships that span centuries and countries, presenting an authorial debut that is well worth the read.
The maternal relationships in Gabriela Garcia’s Of Women and Salt traverse both time and geography, its wide-ranging nature made immediately evident by the brief family tree that Garcia provides at the novel’s outset. The novel examines several generations of mother-daughter connections in a Cuban family whose most recent descendant is the American-born-and-raised Jeanette. Alongside Jeanette’s relatives, the book details the lives of the Salvadoran mother and daughter, Gloria and Ana, who had lived next door to Jeanette before being whisked away by ICE early in the novel. Through these two families, Garcia explores two vastly different incarnations of ‘the immigrant story’ that is too often reduced to flat stereotypes, as well as how immigrant identity interacts with the messiness of mother-daughter relationships.
Messy is certainly an apt descriptor for both the structure of Garcia's narrative and the lives of her characters. With each chapter, Garcia alternates time, place, character, and narrative point of view, a choice that can be disorienting as the reader attempts to pinpoint their place in the novel’s timeline but nevertheless creates a wider scope of view than would be available in a more traditional, static approach. Jeanette’s relationship with her mother Carmen is deeply strained, both by Jeanette’s addiction recovery and by the revelation that her late father molested her. Carmen, in turn, has not spoken to her own mother Dolores in decades, a state of affairs that is obliquely attributed to political differences. Late in the novel, Jeanette travels to Cuba to bond with the country, the grandmother she had never met, and her cousin Maydelis. With this family and Jeanette’s trip, Garcia offers an artful and nuanced look at a state of disconnect between immigrant family members and those who ‘stayed behind.’
The complexities that characterize Garcia’s treatment of Jeanette’s family don’t necessarily translate to Ana and Gloria. While they are certainly fully humanized, they lack what Danielle Evans calls in her New York Times review a “layered” quality, and Evans attributes this to the possibility that “if Ana and Gloria were anything less than flawless, their portrayal might be read as giving ammunition to people anxious to defend the U.S. immigration system.” Regardless of Ana and Gloria’s “flawlessness,” their story remains highly compelling, confronting the reader at each heartbreaking turn with the inhumanity of the American immigration system.
Due to, among other things, this confrontation and Garcia’s ambition in tackling generational cycles of abuse, Of Women and Salt is a remarkable debut and a must-read 2021 release.
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