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BOOK REVIEW

Heroine mixes senses and finds a sense of self

By Diane White
September 13, 2010

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Monique Truong’s “Bitter in the Mouth,’’ is a beautifully written, complex story of self-discovery. The narrator, Linda Hammerick, looks back from the vantage point of her 30s to her childhood in a small Southern town, a place where she never felt she belonged. It’s the premise of many coming-of-age stories, but Linda truly was an outsider, for reasons that emerge as her story progresses.

Linda is extremely intelligent but hampered in school by a form of synesthesia that causes words to evoke tastes. Her first name, for example, tastes of mint, her last name tastes of Dr Pepper (Lindamint HammerickDrPepper). She is also adopted, and Vietnamese, facts that neither her adoptive family nor Linda address until the end of the novel.

In the first chapter Linda, a Yale freshman, returns to Boiling Springs, N.C., because her dreadful grandmother Iris is dying: “She had never told a lie, and the fear of that had kept our family, a shrinking brood, together.’’ Iris’s last words to Linda are, “What I know about you, little girl, would break you in two.’’

Linda calmly replies with an epithet, provoking a suppressed laugh from her great-uncle Harper and “Hush your mouth,’’ from her estranged mother, DeAnne. “My grandmother Iris and I were both speaking the truth and DeAnne couldn’t stand to hear it.’’

At Yale in the late 1980s Linda learns a new word to describe the Hammerick family: dysfunctional. Her parents were unhappily married for almost 25 years before Linda’s adored, and adoring, father, Thomas, died. Linda’s beloved great-uncle Harper is a “confirmed bachelor’’ and closet cross-dresser. And Iris, who never told a lie, had a “slithery’’ phrase to delineate a fact from a secret: “Don’t tell anyone.’’ The Hammericks kept Linda’s secrets. The only clue she has about her origins is a sense memory, a bitter taste.

Only Linda’s best friend Kelly (Kellycannedpeaches Powellonions) knows about Linda’s synesthesia. Truong is at her best describing their friendship. As little girls they share everything, including a passion for Dolly Parton, a devotion to the baby Jesus, and a crush on the same classmate, Wade (Wadeorangesherbet). Outwardly they go their separate ways in high school, but they remain friends, writing hundreds of letters to one another over the years.

Kelly helps Linda find ways to defuse the language-induced taste sensations. Listening to Parton sing thwarts what Linda calls the “incomings.’’ Later she discovers that cigarettes and alcohol have a similar effect. Linda’s synesthesia can be overwhelming and exhausting, especially in school. When a teacher asks, for example, “Linda, where did the English first settle in North Carolina?’’ the question comes to her in a series of word-associated tastes as, “Lindamint, where did the Englishmaraschinocherry firstPepto-Bismol settlemustard in Northcheddarcheese Carolinacannedpeas?’’

Years later, when Linda is an adult, a lawyer living and working in New York, she happens to watch a PBS program about synesthesia, a neurological condition that involves the involuntary mixing of the senses. She’s relieved to discover that other people are synesthetic, including the writer Vladimir Nabokov, who saw the letters of the alphabet in colors, and the painter Wassily Kandinsky, who, when he saw colors, heard musical notes.

Linda eventually learns how she came to live with the Hammericks in Boiling Springs. Iris indeed spoke the truth. It’s a heartbreaking story.

“Bitter in the Mouth’’ has a certain authenticity. The novel is not autobiographical, but the author has pointed out in interviews that her family lived in Boiling Springs, N.C., when they first emigrated from Vietnam. Like Linda, Truong is a lawyer, although she quit the law to write her first novel, the critically praised “The Book of Salt.’’

Diane White is a freelance writer in Georgetown, Ky. She can be reached at duxwhite@aol.com.

BITTER IN THE MOUTH By Monique Truong

Random House, 282 pp., $25