A Review of Marianne Apostolides's Deep Salt Water
Review by Kerry Clare
In her memoir, Deep Salt Water, when Marianne Apostolides’ lover tells her, “You’re too metaphoric,” she defends herself: “’I’m not!’ I reply. ‘I’m describing geology!’” And that’s the trick of the book — she really is. Climate change, mass extinctions, and environmental degradation, as well as theories as to the origins of life — these aren’t metaphors she’s using to write about abortion. Instead, they’re all part of the same story.
Abortion rarely gets to be part of a story, usually functioning instead as an idea without context beyond binaries of “life” and “choice.” Which is false, of course. Every abortion exists within a context, but these are difficult to talk about. Express sadness, experience abortion as loss, and your words could be used against you, enabling the faux-compassionate “abortion hurts women” types, which is why many of the one-in-three women who’ll have an abortion in her lifetime will choose to say nothing at all.
This silence wears at Apostolides. “What is the language to talk of abortion?” she asks. In search of answers, she turns to what she terms as “my ‘good book’”: the dictionary. She writes, “My pilgrimage starts with the letter A.”
To start with the letter A is to go back to the beginning. The salt in the oceans comes from ancient volcanoes, “the mineral core of the earth.” Of sex and the oceans, Apostolides writes, “there’s nothing more basic to human life.”
Starting from A also means returning to the beginning of the story of her relationship. Apostolides falls in love, gets pregnant, has an abortion, and not long afterwards, the relationship ends. She goes on to marry, have children, divorce, write books, and seventeen years later she reconnects with her former lover, which only makes her more deeply consider her abortion. What did it mean? What was the point? What was lost and what was found?
“Elision: abortion. What’s cut is the tissue—material, body—potential for life. But the potency—energy—gets released. It’s hubris to think we could nullify that; it’s like saying that humans could kill the earth…”
Except humans can. They are. “We’ve entered the epoch,” she explains, “Anthropocene, the time of man.” An official geological term, she describes as “a condition in which humankind has encroached on virtually all natural processes.” These encroachments, outlined through the memoir, function as Apostolides’ narrative on a macro level: the oceans are out of balance; malformed fish result from estrogen from birth control pills is flushed into the sea. The personal indeed is political, but it’s also an environmental disaster. Apostolides outlines the effects of the shipping industry’s pollution. Cargo ships, “a hull of crates all crammed with bananas … They feed that mush to babies; it’s safer.”
Can we rank these things? “I ‘murdered’ a fetus. I fed my children. To feed my children, farmers sprayed: soft rain came down in the moonlight of chemicals.” In the grand scheme of things (and oh, the scheme is grand: she writes, “I mean, who could invent a story like this?”), which one is more destructive?
She considers her sadness about her abortion, acknowledging that “[the abortion] was my right, and…part of that right was the right to grieve.” She grieves too for the child her partner would never have, for his ex-wife’s miscarriages, for her complicity in his disappointments: ““The decision was mine, though the baby was ours. It’s a quandary I haven’t been able to rest.”
Deep Salt Water is not an easy book, particularly in terms of form. The book is a puzzle. Its text (structured like a pregnancy with three sections/trimesters, 37 chapters/weeks) is accompanied by collage illustrations by Catherine Mellinger and Apostolides’ prose has a similarly disorienting effect, leaving the reader to wonder: what are the connections between these unlike things? Where is up and where is down? Meaning has to be parsed, the pieces put together, and it’s a lot of work — upon first read I found it frustrating.
It helped once I realized that she really was talking about geology, however. And sitting down with it a second time, with the commitment such a book requires, the whole project became clearer. The engagement demanded by Deep Salt Water is more than rewarded with the narrative’s richness, originality, and daring in the connections Apostolides is willing to make, the questions she is bold enough to pose.
Kerry Clare is a National Magazine Award-nominated writer, author of the novel Mitzi Bytes, and editor of The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood. She is editor of the Canadian books website, 49thShelf.com, and writes about books and reading at her own blog, Pickle Me This.