Of Women and Salt is a novel about choices, immigration, and motherhood that moves from 19th century Cuba to 21st century Miami. In 1866 in Cuba, Maria Isabel is the only woman working at the cigar factory, but war is coming. And in Miami in 2016, Carmen, a first generation Cuban immigrant, is trying to get her daughter Jeannette to stay sober, whilst Jeanette wants to go to Cuba to understand the past her mother doesn’t talk about. And a few years previous, a chance act by Jeanette affects the life of Ana, a young girl who lives across the street with her mother who is about to be deported back to El Salvador.
Told in episodes that move between points of view, time, and place, this is a rich novel that looks at different immigrant circumstances (particularly at the experience of Cubans coming to America and then people from Central American countries like Mexico and El Salvador) and how choices impact people’s lives. It is woven together well, with Carmen and Jeanette’s strained relationship taking an important place in the novel, especially around the reasons behind each of their perspectives and what they’ve faced and the difficulty they have in telling the truth to each other. Through Jeanette, the novel looks at drug addiction and the opioid crisis in Florida, and also at how she longs for Cuba though she’s never been, and doesn’t find it quite what she expects.
The other narratives in the novel bring in other elements, from a contemporary tale of detention centres and the difficulties of making it to the US and staying there to moments from 1866 and 1959 in Cuba which show political moments through the eyes of individual women who have to fight to survive on a more personal scale. The different stories are brought together cleverly to give an overall picture of women battling for themselves and their families and how their individual struggles reflect wider political and social events.
Of Women and Salt is a vivid and powerful novel that grips you as it shows you major moments in its protagonists’ lives. The focus on these individuals and their place in the wider world made it easier for me to keep up with than some other multi-generational novels and I found myself reading it more quickly than I expected.