A Woman of Salt is a stunning poetic essay on suffering. I found myself wincing and weeping throughout. I was consumed by Mary Potter Engel’s narrative on the life of a young intellectual who was dragged through the foggy world of self-reflection. Hurtling towards the impending death of her abusive and estranged mother, Ruth confronts her buried memories. She battles the demons caused by her mentally ill mother and her own choices in an attempt to escape. Evil feels somehow filthier when enacted by the one who gave us birth.
Engel ripped open my soul, causing me to question my own understanding of relationships, vulnerability, and suffering. I wanted to crawl into Ruth’s skin and feel every ounce of her anguish.
Engel, a former professor of Christian theology who converted to Judaism, weaves her gift of biblical insight into the narrative using creative Midrash. Each chapter of Ruth’s journey is juxtaposed against Engel’s interpretative unpacking of the biblical story of Lot’s wife—the woman, who upon looking into the eyes of her burning past, was emblazoned into a pillar of salt. The power line of the novel’s characters combine with the brilliance of Engel’s theological construction like therapy for suppression of trauma. The dangers of religious fundamentalism are replete in almost every theme in the novella. I wondered throughout the novel which character would become memorialized in a pillar of salt from looking over their shoulder.
“Not one of us can help succumbing to the endemic power that eternally tempts us to re-create our past in a beauty that renders us tolerable to ourselves: to be human is to deceive ourselves,” writes Engel.
The author draws the reader into the gut-wrenching world of self-reflection. Anyone who is willing to trespass into this raw tale of psychic damage and brutalized intimacy must be ready to consider their own role in the conflict. Written almost as a lucid dream, readers could find a bit of their own disturbing and hidden self in every character.
The novella appears to be autobiographical. Engel writes her theological expose with authority. Yet, A Woman of Salt is experimental. The voice of each novella chapter alternates from the first person to third person, then back again. The technique left me with a sense of reading a series of thematic short stories. Until I understood the author’s style, I kept going back to the previous chapter to see if I had misread. Almost as if I was reading three books simultaneously. While not bothered by the technique itself, I am not convinced alternating the storyteller’s point of view added depth to the novella portion of the book. The storyline was powerful on its own merit.
Reading A Woman of Salt is a spiritual experience. We are invited to enter the story in order to find our way of being honest about our past, as well as seeking a hope for our future.