So I’ve recently finished reading this book, and while I’ve attempted to read other books (I have this irrepressible need to keep reading, you know what I mean?), nothing quite sticks. The problem at hand is that I cannot get my head out of this book, this brilliant book, even after putting it down and walking away.
I am bursting at the seams with all these thoughts about it. If I don’t get these thoughts down somewhere, it feels like they might disappear, along with my memory of reading it, all those awe-struck, breath-holding, mind-blown emotions that are coursing through my blood vessels, making it unable to read anything new.
Do you ever feel that way about a book that has just struck you, knocked you down flat and held your mind ransom for the days that you read it?
Because that’s what Bitter in the Mouth has done to me. It has undone me.
I’ve spent the past few days reluctantly inching to the end of the book. I didn’t want to run out of story.
Funny that, because it was a book that I hadn’t given much thought about prior. I remember reading Monique Truong’s Book of Salt years ago, but not much else about it. So Bitter in the Mouth never really was on my radar at all. And I’ve not heard much about it from the book blogging community (usually my source of books to-be-read). Or perhaps I just missed it all. (Please tell me if you’ve written about it!)
But as I was checking out the available e-books on my library’s Overdrive catalogue, I stopped and considered it. And then, as I usually do, I checked it out on Goodreads, which was where I saw a 4-star rating from a friend (thanks Yu-Mei!), and thought, ok let’s check it out.
And well, I sure wasn’t expecting this, any of this!
First of all, there is synesthesia, a neurological condition. Our narrator Linda experiences words as tastes. Her name ‘Linda’ tastes like mint, for instance. (That already fascinates me, to hear words and to taste them in her mouth).
“I was particularly fond of this thread: “walnut, elephant, candle, jogger.” These words brought forth the following in this satisfying order: ham steak, sugar-cured and pan-fried; sweet potatoes baked with lots of butter; 7UP (though more of the lime than the lemon, like when it’s icy cold); fresh strawberries, sweet and ripe.“
But this quirk, while fascinating – and putting the ‘bitter’ literally in the mouth – is not what made the story for me.
To be honest, it was rather disconcerting at first to read dialogue like this:
“Or whatgrahamcracker?” Kelly asked.
“I’ll neverbubblegum speaklemonade to youcannedgreenbeans againpancakenosyrup!”
“Youcannedgreenbeans neverbubblegum say anyricethingtomato to me now,” Kelly said, rolling her eyes.
(Good thing that dialogue is kept to a minimum then)
Here we have Linda, and her funny great-uncle Harper, who was her first love.
“We were both compact, always folding ourselves into smaller pieces. We both liked music because it was a river where we stripped down, jumped in, and flailed our arms around. It was 1975 then, and the water everywhere around us was glittery with disco lights. My great-uncle Harper and I, though, danced to Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Fats Domino. We twisted, mashed-potatoed, and winked at each other whenever we opened our eyes. My great-uncle Harper was my first love. I was seven years old. In his company, I laughed out loud.”
I couldn’t help being smitten with Baby Harper either, especially after I read about how he catalogued his books:
His books were shelved in alphabetical order but not by titles. A for “Acerbic,” B for “Buy Another Copy as Gift,” C for “Cow Dung, as in This Stinks,” D for “Devastating,” E for “Explore Further,” F for “Foreign” (foreign meant that my great-uncle couldn’t relate to the characters in the book, not that the author was from another country), and so on . He would explain the system to me and give me typewritten pages identifying all twenty-six categories.
There is Linda’s best friend Kelly to whom she writes letters (it is easier for Linda to read about one’s life events than to hear it spoken), share a secret love for Dolly Parton (“DP”) and even crush on the same boy (it’s a small town):
“The main reason we both loved this ritual of pen, paper, and stamps (the philatelic design announced the writer’s mood : My letter had been posted with two Grand Canyons, and Kelly’s response featured a Niagara Falls) was the waiting and the eventual receipt. It was one of the few examples in our young lives of patience rewarded.”
Linda’s mother DeAnne is one we are not meant to like. She’s like the cruel stepmother of fairy tales beloved. They have a difficult relationship – she calls her ‘DeAnne’ and not ‘Mom’, and Linda is careful to point out all the highlights of their years together, noting that she loved DeAnne only from the ages of 7 to 11, because that’s what she thought she was meant to do.
And because we are told all of this from Linda’s perspective, we lack all that other knowledge, the memories that are left untold, the stories from other points of view that we do not see. But Truong gradually reveals some of these secrets, some which we – and Linda – realise were hidden in plain sight all along.
There is no big reveal, no ‘ta-da!’ with the showgirl whisking away the curtain. There is only the subtle, the shoes under the curtains, telling us what everyone else already knew (or thought they knew).
But besides this admirable plot structure, that much-appreciated single narrator first-person perspective, Bitter in the Mouth was also a collection of small-town-America anecdotes. The baton-twirling, the bus rides to school, the too-many casseroles doled out every single day:
“Whether à la king, tuna, or beefy (different from beef itself), these casseroles also shared the same texture, as if all their ingredients had been made to wear a sweater. I have since learned that foods named for the pot or pan that they were cooked in probably had little else going for them. Meat loaf or a Bundt cake, for example.”
It made this big-city-state-born-and-bred Singaporean (who had only ever eaten/made a Bundt cake or meatloaf in the past few years) live and breathe that small town life. And be eternally grateful that my Dad, who worked for an American company, never uprooted us from Singapore to a small town in upstate New York.
Bitter in the Mouth is such a gorgeous book, and I’m just going to go all out and say it – one of my favourite reads of the year.
Watermark: Vietnamese American poetry & prose, co-edited with Barbara Tran and Luu Truong Khoi
The Book of Salt
Bitter in the Mouth