When I first heard that Monique Truong’s novel Bitter in the Mouth was about a girl with synesthesia–she tastes words–I was immediately intrigued. Sure, that premise is interesting in its own right, but my interest was piqued because of its surface-level similarity to a book I read earlier this year and adored, Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which is about a girl who tastes the cook’s feelings in his or her food. I was also nervous–I didn’t want to read a book that attempted something close to, but fell short of, Ms. Bender’s phenomenal novel. My anxiety was proved unfounded, though, when I saw Monique Truong read from Bitter in the Mouth back in September at the Brooklyn Book Festival. The passage she chose was intimate, telling and incredibly beautiful. She was also, I thought, endearingly nervous reading–her voice trembled, adding to the charm of her protagonist, Linda.
Linda recounts this story, which takes place predominantly in her childhood, from a present in which she is thirty, deftly weaving together past and present. The narrative starts when she is seven years old and answers a simple question her father reads in a letter from her soon-to-be best friend, Kelly–“What’s your favorite color?”–with the bizarre answer, “Fire.” A reader with a mind for these things would pick up right away that this is a hint about one of the buried secrets in Linda’s life; I am not that reader. It took me quite a while to have an “ah-ha” moment there, but that didn’t diminish the power of the conversation between a little girl and her father–her innocence, his acceptance and love. The other adults in Linda’s life aren’t all so accepting–her grandmother, Iris, and her mother, DeAnne, are both sources of lifelong self-doubt and trauma. Linda’s two saviors, though, are her eccentric great-uncle, Baby Harper, and Kelly.
As close as she is with Baby Harper, Kelly is the only one who knows from the start about Linda’s synesthesia. They write letters over the course of their lives–even after email is invented–and devise plans for how to cope with “incomings”–what they call the tastes that assault Linda and prevent her from concentrating–with boys, with their families. I appreciated that Linda’s deepest, most meaningful, most nonjudgmental relationships were with Kelly and with her gay, transgressive uncle. This book explored race, body image, sex, gender, adoption, relationships, the South, illness, rape and more without ever becoming didactic. It hit many of these issues from different angles at different points in the book, never stretching to accommodate a “theme.” Every turn the story took was well-supported and integral.
As I’ve mentioned many times before, I love an unreliable narrator. In Bitter in the Mouth, we don’t exactly have an unreliable narrator, but a withholding one. That may not even be right, though. Linda gives us information when we need it, but not a moment before. This tactic results in a series of mid- to late-book revelations that I, for one, found exhilarating. It was a strange reading experience, feeling mysteries being resolved that I hadn’t quite identified as mysteries. I think what was best about it was how many narrative levels my brain got to operate on. Linda’s boy problems and family issues were well-explicated in the text, so I was totally with her for those. I was working with her, too, on her struggles with synesthesia, because, just as “incomings” interrupted her thoughts processes, they interrupted my reading experience–the tastes she tasted when she heard words were injected into the book’s quotations in the form of italics. But, in this case, I was slightly more in-the-know than was Linda, who didn’t have a name for her condition for most of the book. Her grandmother’s cryptic deathbed declaration was a mystery Linda and I both got to ponder. But, then, there were struggles Linda was dealing with that I knew nothing about until after the fact. And there were secrets neither Linda nor I knew to ponder until late in the novel. This all made for an active, layered and immersive reading experience.
It may seem a little crazy when I tell you that Ms. Truong also successfully integrated the stories of Orville and Wilbur Wright, Virginia Dare and the enslaved poet George Moses into this book, but she did. I mean really–beat that.
I haven’t said enough here to recommend the novel just for its sentences, so I’ll leave you with this, from Chapter 22, page 265, which seems appropriate for a time when so many of us are headed “home” for the holidays:
All families were an invention. Some families were machines. Some were gardens, full of topiaries or overgrown with milkweeds. Others were Trojan horses or other inspired works of art. Sinister or a thing of beauty, we often couldn’t tell because we were too close to them to see. We created them with our bodies or with our will.