Book review 

Human existence is messy and dynamic. But when we look at the lives of others, we often project our own perceptions onto them, creating an imagined life that is romanticized, fetishized or even disgraced. Those projected ideals from others can then ingrain themselves into the minds of marginalized groups, smashing potential and generating a one-dimensional picture of who they are and who they can be. 

In “Of Women and Salt,” the debut novel from Gabriela Garcia, the daughter of immigrants from Cuba and Mexico, any preconceived notions of migrant women are thrown out the window. Garcia shows a flawed cast of characters that spans decades and settings in a world where their lives are rich and complex — and wholly and simply human. 

“Women? Certain women? We are more than we think we are,” Garcia writes. “There is always more.”

“Of Women and Salt” centers on the lives of five generations of Cuban women and two Salvadoran immigrants. Told in vignettes, the storyline moves around from 19th-century cigar factories in Cuba to present-day Miami and detention centers in Texas. 

The matriarch of the Cuban family is Maria Isabel. Readers meet her in 1866 Camagüey, where she is the only female employee at her town’s cigar factory. But tying each woman’s stories together is Maria Isabel’s great-great-granddaughter, Jeanette, who is arguably the novel’s main character. Although we don’t truly meet her until the second chapter, where Jeanette is introduced as a 20-something living in Miami battling addiction and struggling with a toxic relationship, Jeanette’s mother, Carmen, opens “Of Women and Salt” with the line, “Jeanette, tell me that you want to live.” 

For a relatively short book — coming in at just a little over 200 pages — “Of Women and Salt” dives deep into subjects such as immigration, addiction, sexual abuse, death and mother-daughter bonds across two families and generations. These topics are heavy, and should be advised, certainly not for everyone, but when faced with adversity, the women in this novel don’t respond as they would in modern American media.

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That’s what makes this novel wonderful. It provides a different view of migrant women — as more than those who only sacrifice their lives for their families. 

Garcia shows these women in a wide range of character, conviction and personality, from weak-willed to strong and resilient. Some are emotionally distant. Some make choices without their children’s best interest in mind. They are humans before they are mothers, before they are anything else. They make mistakes and learn from them, and it’s beautiful and realistic. In the shaky choices the characters make, “Of Women” shows the impact our decisions have on our lives and how they filter down into our children and our children’s children’s lives. 

Another standout aspect of the novel is Garcia’s ability to create diverse and distinct voices. Each chapter has unique prose and a lyrical tone that deftly matches the speaking character’s personality and situation. Sometimes in the third person, sometimes in first, Jeanette’s chapters are uncertain and juvenile in thought, while her mother’s, Carmen, have a stiff, constrained feel about them. 

“Of Women and Salt” is a captivating and harrowing debut that will undoubtedly put Garcia on the literary map for years to come. It is a prime example of why diverse voices and stories need to be told, to shatter the one-sided narrative typically seen about immigrants, the Latino communities and beyond.

Remember, we are more than we think we are. Others are more than we perceive them. “There is always more.”

Gabriela Garcia, Flatiron Books, 224 pp., $26.99

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