The bright, articulate narrator of Bitter in the Mouth, a quirky coming-of-age novel, harbors a secret: She tastes words. When she confesses this with a simple statement — "Mom, honest. I mean it. Words, they have a taste" — her mouth fills with an explosion of incompatible flavors: Mom (chocolate milk), honest. I mean (raisins) it. Words (licorice), they have a taste. Her own name, Linda, fills her mouth with the taste of mint, while her surname — Hammerick — produces "the fizzy taste of sweet licorice with a mild chaser of wood smoke." "God" tastes like walnuts, "selfish" like corn on the cob, "baby" like honey. The name of a prospective boyfriend tastes like orange sherbet. This is a form of synesthesia, a neurological condition in which sense perceptions mingle: numbers or musical tones may evoke colors for some synesthetes, while flickering patterns may produce distinct sounds for others. But this isn't a neurological case study of the sort Oliver Sacks has popularized. Instead, the reader follows Linda as she discovers the clandestine histories of those around her — how her father really died, for example — and of herself, including her mysterious passage from the culture of her birth to South Carolina, where stories about slaves, Indians and the first airplane flight still linger.
Linda's real name, Linh-Dao Nguyen, reveals her to be Vietnamese, like the author, Monique Truong, whose wonderful previous novel, The Book of Salt, revolved around a Vietnamese cook employed in Paris by the writer Gertrude Stein and her lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas.
Like the author, Linda is an outsider adopted as a baby into American society. She identifies with Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, which celebrates those who don't quite fit neatly into the community.
"I was never Scout," Linda asserts, referring to the brash girl who narrates the novel. "I was Boo Radley, not hidden away but in plain sight." The tension Linda feels, however, comes not from the juxtaposition of her ethnic background with the Southern culture in which she was raised, but from secrets hidden and resentments nursed.
"One silence had led to another, and eventually the silences became the life preservers dotting the dangerous ocean between them," Linda says of the relationships among the characters who populate her life. Her search is not so much for ultimate truth, but for a workable narrative that will help her make sense of her outsider status — a status caused not so much by her ethnicity as by her intelligence.
"We all need a story of where we came from and how we got here," Linda says. "Otherwise, how could we ever put down our tender roots and stay."
Linda's first experience with synesthesia produced the sensation of something bitter in her mouth.
"It was bitter in the way that greens that were good for us were often bitter," she says.
In honor of that sensation, a discussion of the novel should be accompanied by something bitter that is just plain good, such as Bitter Cream and Orange Biscuits. Whatever bitterness is brought to the cookie by the sour cream is more than offset by the sweetness that comes from orange juice, orange zest and sugar. The result is a surprisingly bright taste that feels quite sumptuous, not bitter, in the mouth.
Tom Valeo, special to the Times
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