Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Salt God's Daughter

The Salt God's Daughter by Ilie Ruby
Soft Skull Press,  9/4/2012
Hardcover, 352  pages
ISBN-13: 9781619020023

The Salt God’s Daughter is set in Long Beach, California, beginning in the 1970s, and follows three generations of extraordinary women who share something unique—something magical and untamed that makes them unmistakably different from others. Theirs is a world teeming with ancestral stories, exotic folklore, inherited memory, and meteoric myths.
Meet Diana Gold, who raises her two daughters on the road, charting their course according to an imagined map of secrets drawn from the Old Farmer’s Almanac. Meet her daughters—Ruthie and Dolly—who are raised in the back of their mother’s station wagon and then later in an old motel turned retirement home on the ocean, a place where the residents run with half-packed suitcases into the ocean at night, where lipstick kisses are left on handkerchiefs and buried in empty bottles, and where love comes in the most unlikely and mysterious of places—perhaps it even walks right out of the ocean in the form of a man.
Ruthie and Dolly are caught in the wilds of this enchanted landscape, fiercely protective of each other and unaware of how far they have drifted from traditional society. But when they are suddenly forced to strike out on their own, they are caught in the riptide of a culture that both demonizes and glorifies female sexuality. It is within this conflicted landscape that tragedy strikes. Years later, Ruthie’s daughter is born with a secret that will challenge her ties to the women in her family, and to the ocean.

My Thoughts:

The Salt God's Daughter by Ilie Ruby follows three generations of women in California. Set mainly in Long Beach, the novel opens in 2001 with Ruthie's daughter, Naida, and then jumps back to 1972 and follows Naida's grandmother, Diana Gold and her two daughters, Ruthie and Dolly, to the present. Diana raises her daughters on the road, living out of her station wagon, based on what she sees in the Old Farmer's Almanac and the phase of the moon. Many of her inventive names for the moon's phases are tailored to fit their situation. The women keep returning to Dr. Brownstein's beach hotel, which later becomes a retirement home, in Long Beach.

The Salt God's Daughter is an atmospheric novel that explores the complex relationship and love between mothers and daughters while portraying the female experience. It is also about being different, a non-conformist to the world and how violence and bullies can influence a person's self esteem. Always present is a tantalizing pull toward the sea or  repulsion from it, depending upon the character. There are also several heartbreaking passages where the characters bear painful, life changing experiences.

The Salt God's Daughter is not a light read. This is a multi-layered novel with many complexities woven into the plot. Folklore, magic realism, mysticism, and mythology infuse the whole novel with a dream-like quality. Certainly having a character named Diana following the phases of the moon so closely is no coincidence. (Diana, a huntress, is the Roman goddess of the moon, nature, fertility and childbirth.) And, while the women are Jewish, that fact was simply another tradition that was ultimately tied into all sorts of other belief systems, including Celtic lore. 

Ultimately, this is a beautifully written novel that will have many readers turning back to relish a sentence or paragraph again. While admittedly I also had to turn back a few times because I got lost in the mythology (magic realism can trip me up), that didn't deter me from the pure joy I felt in reading such a finely crafted novel. Even though I normally try to avoid magic realism, this novel was the exception to my rule as I enjoyed it immensely. 

Very Highly Recommended - one of the best

It is very evident that Ilie Ruby is a painter, as well as an author, in her descriptions of Ruthie painting. She is also the author of the critically-acclaimed novel, The Language of Trees, which debuted in 2010 and was selected as a Target Emerging Author’s Pick and a First Magazine for Women Reader’s Choice.

Disclosure: My copy was courtesy of Spark Point Studio for review purposes.

People had been calling me the Frog Witch for as long as I could remember. My mother, Ruthie, lied and told me it was because they envied the long wavy locks of jet-black hair that fell across my back, which I inherited from my father. opening

My father needed to know me, and I to know him. I didn't have a name for what I was and what I could do. But I needed to save myself. There were things I needed to discover - about who I was, my mother's past, and even the woman who came before.
The attack on me would happen first, though. I could feel it coming. pg. 5

We ran wild at night, effortless, boundless, under a blood-red sky - to where and to what we couldn't have known. We craved it, that someplace. We were two little girls, sisters, daughters with no mother, distrustful of the freedom we were given, knowing she shouldn't have left. We tore across the dirt campgrounds where we slept, naked but for our mud boots, letting the wind shiver up across our bare chests. pg. 9

If I told you that I ached for a different mother, I'd be lying. I ached for my own, every minute. As motherless daughters do.
She was our child. We didn't know any different. Everyone knew a mother was a daughter's first love. pg. 10

"Who else watches the full moon like we do?" Dolly once asked my mother.
"Farmers do. Sailors and fishermen who need to rely on the ocean," said my mother. She said that you had to know that which could save you, for it could probably also kill you. You had to know it better than anyone else, every inch of it. pg. 16-17

Since we were all made from he same material, I imagined there was a piece of moon and earth in us. Everything was, in effect, connected to everything else. It followed, then, that men and women, adults and children, were more connected than we realized. I didn't understand why there was always so much distance. pg. 38

It was easy to become night pirates, casing the streets in the rich section of town. The waning moon, which rose like a great orange ball in the sky, would bring us a productive and protected night of trash picking. pg. 51

I still cried, but my tears lessened with time, as things do. pg. 104

Happiness was like an escaped wheelbarrow rolling down a hill. You needed to control it, to tie it with a rope and to pull it along with you. It was the one thing I knew how to do well, hold on to that rope for people who'd lost their grip. I'd had enough practice. pg. 130


Jeanne said...

This sounds right up my alley.

Ilie said...

Lori, these beautiful words just made my day. I appreciate this review of my novel.

Best wishes,

Lori L said...

I'll look forward to your review when you read The Salt God's Daughter, Jeanne!

Thanks for writing such a wonderful novel, Ilie!