THE HUNGER WITHIN: Susan Soon He Stanton finds Monique Truong’s sophomore effort, Bitter in the Mouth, something to whet the literary appetite.
ISSUE: Winter 2010-11
DEPT: Plugged In
STORY: Susan Soon He Stanton
Today’s literary market is a veritable smorgasbord of epicurean-themed fiction, and yet Monique Truong’s aptly titled second novel, Bitter in the Mouth (Random House), is a stand-alone dish. Fans of her best-selling first novel, The Book of Salt, depicting the life of a Vietnamese chef working for Gertrude Stein in pre-World War II Paris, will recognize Truong’s lyrical prose and delicately rendered portrait of an outsider.
In Bitter in the Mouth, Truong’s introduces Linda Hammerick of Boiling Springs, N.C. Linda, blessed with a sharp mind and rich sense of humor, is afflicted with synesthesia, a neurologically-based condition in which the stimulation of one sense involuntarily triggers a second. In Linda’s case, she tastes words. Linda’s own name is mint flavored, while her best friend’s name tastes like canned peaches. The word for “selfish” invokes sweet bits of corn on the cob, after the kernels have been eaten. Truong allows readers to experience Linda’s condition by attaching the corresponding flavors to the words Linda hears.
“‘Momchocolatemilk, honest … Wordslicorice, they have a taste.’”
“‘Lindamint. Stopcannedcorn it! … I won’t handleFruitStripegum crazyheavycream. I won’t have it in my familycannedbeets.’”
Woven throughout Linda’s circuitous story are passages about the history of North Carolina — Indian lore, the account of a poet-slave, and even a cameo from the Wright brothers. Through all of the novel’s twists and turns, Linda’s relationship with her family remains at the story’s emotional core. Linda has a difficult relationship with her adoptive mother, DeAnne, whose preoccupation with a teenaged boy puts her daughter in peril. Iris, Linda’s grandmother, has volunteered for the position of family truth-teller. On her deathbed, Iris proclaims, “What I know about you, little girl, would break you in two.” Only in the final chapters does Linda uncover the true meaning of her grandmother’s portentous final words. Truong sets up a series of mysteries with a delayed payoff. Although Linda is an immediately fascinating protagonist, some of the intentionally withheld information creates a curious feeling of alienation during some of the earlier chapters.
One of the delights of the novel is Linda’s epistolary friendship with her best friend Kelly. From their secret idolatry of Dolly Parton to their various teenaged crushes, Truong’s unflinching lens captures the highs and lows of the lifelong relation- ship between the two women. Another highlight is Linda’s delightfully eccentric uncle, Baby Harper, who moonlights as a funeral photographer and teaches her how to dance. Baby Harper writes, “If you are lucky, you are born not once but many times.”
Truong’s artful narration takes us through Linda’s many lives in the South in the 1970s and 80s, from her childhood in rural North Carolina, to Yale College, to her adulthood in Manhattan. Linda attempts to dull the effects of her synesthesia with cigarettes and alcohol, and separates herself from her family with time and distance. However, a family tragedy sends her back to Boiling Springs, a place full of unsavory memories. The link between family and death, words and tastes, tragedy and enduring love, is explored in this surprising and unique novel. Although at times the prose is complex, the novel is a stunning, brave work of fiction that should not be missed.
– Susan Soon He Stanton
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