I don’t often recommend contemporary fiction, but this year has been a revelation. I absolutely loved Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, Cathy Marie Buchanan The Day The Falls Stood Still, Richard Flanagan’s Wanting, and Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven.
Now I have another to add to the list: Monque Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth is one of the most original, beautifully-written novels of the year. This is one of my “picks” for the National Book Award.
The witty, thoughtful, sad narrator of Truong’s second novel has an unusual talent. Every word she hears or utters is accompanied by a flavor. The incredibly charming, lyrical dialogue goes like this:
“I’ll neverbubblegum speaklemonade to youcannedgreen beans againpancakesyrup.”
Truong’s language is pitch-perfect. She doesn’t overdo the dialogue: most of the time we’re in Linda’s head. Linda doesn’t know what to make of her ability. Adopted when she was seven by a Southern lawyer, Thomas, and his wife, Deanne, she remembers nothing before the adoption. The taste of words is a part of her, but her mother doesn’t want to hear about it. Her best friend Kelly, with whom she exchanges letters every day, believes her and helps her cope with it. She advises Linda to smoke in high school to slow the constant sensations.
The person with whom Linda has most in common in her family is her artistic, gay great-uncle, Baby Harper. After her father dies and Linda goes away to Yale, he is the only family member she keeps in touch with.
The first part of the novel, Truong’s account of Linda’s childhood and adolescence, is often humorous, even effervescent. But there are also some dark and terrible events: Kelly’s cousin molests Kelly and rapes Linda. Her first “period” is the result of rape, which she can’t discuss with her mother.
The second part of the novel is brilliant but the voice changes and becomes cynical: Linda, numb and depressed in New York, loves her work as a lawyer but her personal life is empty: her psychiatrist boyfriend is never there. Truong reveals for first time that Linda is Vietnamese and we understand Linda’s isolation: her family never discussed her Asian background as she grew up in a small town in North Carolina.
In her thirties she has lost touch with her family and Kelly until a death sends her home to North Carolina. She finally learns family secrets.
The only slightly awkward part of the book is where we learn about Linda’s taste-word experience, a neurological condition known as synesthesia. She watches a PBS show, a realistic way to learn, but somehow not what we expect from this extremely innovative novel. I was very moved, though, by her discoveries.
I loved this graceful, engaging novel.