If ever there was a time to use the word “sensual,” this is it. This is a book one must relax into and give oneself over to, absorbing the sights, sounds, scents, textures and above all the tastes:
When he spoke of bitter melons steamed with the brine-plumped tongues of one hundred ducks, I saw a landscape of greens and grays. I tasted parsimony and extravagance comingled on a single plate (page 66).
I have simmered strings of dried figs in bergamot tea. I have braised mutton with bouquets of herbs tied in ribbons of lemon rinds until their middle-aged sinews remember spring. As for the artichokes, I have discarded all the glass jars of graying hearts afloat in their vinegared baths that I found hiding inside his kitchen cabinets. Sometimes…it is better to crave (page 237).
The writing in Monique Truong’s first novel is almost relentless in its beauty. It was so evocative of the senses, of memory, of feeling, that I found it hard to follow plot, to keep any sense of grounding. But, as I made my way through the book, I learned to accept that and savor the prose. Rarely have I read any so considered. Because the story’s telling is nonlinear, more stream of consciousness, and because of its lovely, out-of-time feel, it reminded me very much of To the Lighthouse.
The Book of Salt is about a young man who calls himself Binh, the Vietnamese live-in cook of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. It could be considered historical fiction, especially because Binh winds up encountering other real-life figures such as Paul Robeson and Ho Chi Minh (the latter, I never would have put together without the blurb on the back of the book, and I don’t know if that matters). I like to think of it as Truong imagining into history, though, rather than trying to create some sort of parallel narrative to the one that is often told. What matters here is not so much the facts or the take-offs on the facts, but the prose.
We fall in and out of Binh’s past and present throughout the book, glimpsing moments of his traumatic early family life, his time in the Governor-General’s kitchen in Vietman, his travels at sea, his years in Paris before meeting his Mesdames, as he calls them. We learn about the men he has loved, with all his heart or just for a night. Food, fabric, photography, words, naming, the framing of relationships–all of these themes recur again and again. The physical, the emotional and memory not only coexist in this book, but they are enmeshed and inextricable.
Although The Book of Salt won many awards for gay literature and is mentioned often for its take on 1930s Paris, I recommend that you read it not for the politics or the history, but only for the experience of reading it.