The Salt God's Daughter by Ilie Ruby
Something you may need to know prior to reading Ilie Ruby's latest novel, The Salt God's Daughter: this is a story inspired by a traditional Selkie myth. A Selkie myth is a Scottish romantic tragedy about an attractive lover coming out of the sea, clad in sealskin (mermaid-like), seeking out human contact for a short amount of time before being pulled back to the ocean. I figured this out about halfway in, at a time in the book when it was most beneficial to know this information. I had never heard of a Selkie myth, perhaps because I'm not particularly interested in Scottish romantic tragedies. What you really should know prior to reading this novel is that Ruby learned this myth in folksong form from her mother who taught her to play it on the guitar as a child. You should know this because it's this generational, mother-to-child, teaching sort of love that resonates throughout this novel; it is this humanness that is this book's greatest strength.
The Salt God's Daughter, divided into three parts, begins with the story of Ruthie, a little girl in the 1970s, living with her sister, Dolly, and their mother, Diana, in a large green station wagon in Long Beach, California. They are transient and destitute. Diana, a narcissistic Elizabeth Taylor lookalike, is at her worst closer to her whiskey, General Hospital, and to her men than to her two daughters. At her best, she shares with her daughters her fascination of the moon and the ocean -- and guides their lives based on assorted facts found in her annually purchased dog-eared copy of The Old Farmer's Almanac. These three women, for the most part, stick together, through all sorts of hell. Ruthie and her sister grow especially close; their closeness remains when they move into the Bethesda Home for Young Girls and, into adulthood, when Dolly moves to San Diego and Ruthie moves to Wild Acres, a seaside hotel turned retirement home. It is there that Ruthie is shown tenderness by Graham, the "Salt God." It is also at Wild Acres where she later raises her daughter, Naida, and finds family among the elderly residents.
At its core, this story is about feminism and three generations of women, mothers and daughters and the bond (or lack thereof) that is created through time. It's about motherhood, which as Dr. Brownstein (Dr. B), the wise owner of Wild Acres, says, "is not about mothers. The first thing nobody tells you." If motherhood is not about mothers, then it's about the essence of this book -- a yearning to find a home, a place where you can be yourself. As Diana tells Ruthie when she's a child, "That's what it feels like when you are home. You can stop pretending."
Ruby's writing style is dreamy, mystical, and poetic. The majority of the book is written in narrative, however, throughout her novel, Ruby periodically switches over to poetic prose, aphorism, and at times offers background information. This may sound jarring, but it didn't bother me. I found the more poetic parts to be welcome reprieves from the intensity of the storyline and Ruby's insights shed light on the novel. For example: "Sometimes being in the wrong place was the only place people would see you." At the same time, lines like this make readers pause and consider a time when their own lives have mirrored this statement. In a sense, Ruby's writing style helps the reader relate to the characters in the book.
The characters and the setting hunger for each other in The Salt God's Daughter. The entire book takes place in close proximity to the Pacific Ocean; the ocean is everywhere, its saltiness fills the pages, lingers on the characters. The main characters are all drawn to the ocean, mystically so, sometimes dangerously, and repeatedly. Lovely in its complexity, Ruby has written in many layers. Yes, her book is mystical and fanciful, but at the same time it is intensely raw, and often unsettling. This book deals with timely societal issues, human cruelty and the crazy, awful things people have the capacity to do to one another -- rape, bullying, abandonment. Aside from the previously mentioned Scottish folklore, Ruby also weaves her story with strands of Judaism. Despite the Selkie mysticism, her characters are, for the most part, real. They could be people you'd walk by on the street, secrets stirring within.
The hurdles encountered by the characters in this novel are obstacles we, as humans, encounter every day. It is this humanness that I appreciated the most in reading The Salt God's Daughter. I had difficulty relating to the Selkie folklore, which is not to say those parts didn't have their gripping moments. But if I use my "putting the book down" gauge, it was easier to walk away from the book during the scenes that require some suspension of disbelief. However, because Ruby's writing is so complexly layered, it is difficult to find something not to appreciate in this book.
The Salt God's Daughter by Ilie Ruby
Soft Skull Press