Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong is a coming of age story narrated by Linda Hammerick, looking back on her childhood in Boiling Springs, North Carolina in the 70s and 80s. The main drama of the book is the interactions between different members of Linda’s family, and Linda’s efforts to make her way amid the secrets and dysfunctions around her. One of these secrets is Linda’s, which she only shares with her best friend: Linda has the very rare condition of lexical-gustatory synesthesia. When she hears certain words, she can taste them.
Although her synesthesia is not the whole point of the book, it is a major component, and also the origin of the title, so I’ll start with it. It’s a brilliant device, and such an obvious shortcut to evocative writing that I’m surprised I’ve never seen it used this way before. Lots of writers employ synesthesia in their prose, as a poetic device (e.g. describing a noise as sharp, describing pain as bright), but here it’s built into the character. It allows Truong to frequently assail the reader with the most immediate, vivid sense one can evoke in the written word—taste. Peach cobbler, bread and butter pickles, and sourdough bread register with a reader at an intensity which fuzzy, shrill, or sea foam green do not. At the same time, taste descriptions are normally very difficult to work into a story, because most of the time we aren’t tasting anything. So having a character who experiences vivid, hyper-specific tastes when she hears words feels like a cheat, but an effective one nonetheless. There’s such a pleasure in discovering which words pair with which flavors, in reading dialogue that is peppered with dozens of tastes.
And that is, ultimately, why the synesthesia isn’t just a gimmick, or a way to quickly pull the reader into any scene: Truong commits to it fully in multiple ways which cause complications for the book. The first, most obvious commitment is that the tastes are always rendered in the dialogue, every single time. For instance, here is her teacher calling role:
As I said, this is like jabbing a live wire into the reader’s insular cortex (good 👍), but it effectively throttles the dialogue (bad 👎 or at least a challenge for a writer.) Truong doesn’t just turn it off when it’s inconvenient—it’s always there, just like it’s always there for Linda. And that’s the other major way Truong commits to complication—Linda’s synesthesia is frequently a hindrance to her. In school, she has trouble focusing, and eventually has to start smoking (which dampens the “incomings”) so she can improve her grades. This compelling, juicy literary device has realistic consequences for the character and how she interacts with others; who she does and doesn’t reveal it to is a major plot point.
The other thing that sells it, that makes it rich rather than cheap, is that the pairings of flavors with words are arbitrary. It would be so easy to make a kind of game of this, and communicate Linda’s feelings about certain characters or places through her synesthesia, but that’s not how it works with people who really have it. For Linda, “Dill” is faithful—it tastes like itself—but most food words are not. She enjoys it when her mom calls her selfish, because “selfish” tastes like corn on the cob. This means Linda has a very different relationship with words than everyone around her—an extreme version of the way all of us experience certain tastes, emotions, and even words, in unique, incommunicable ways. As Linda narrates, “But we all haven’t tasted the same unripe fruit. In order to feel not so alone in the world, we blur the lines of our subjective memories, and we say to one another, ‘I know exactly what you mean!'” (15)
This is one of Bitter in the Mouth‘s great achievements—Linda’s highly detailed, profound introspection. There is not much scene in this book, perhaps because the dialogue would always be so choppy, perhaps because Linda is a lonely character. The book operates primarily in summary, insight, and reflection, quite like a memoir. The story has a chronological shape, but chapters frequently swing back and forth in time, finding their focus in a character or idea rather than a series of cause-and-effect events. It’s artful in the way it pulls the reader forward, but appears perfectly natural and effortless, as though Linda is sitting across from you and recalling these events (with some exceptions—the narrator is actually quite conscious of the fact that she is narrating her life to someone, and at times explicitly chooses how to deliver certain bits of information.) And it’s compelling because of the level of specificity Truong achieves in describing Linda’s experiences. Although we have not all tasted the same unripe fruit, Truong gets as close to imparting the exact bitterness of Linda’s life as anyone can; she is not aiming to blur the lines of subjective memory, but sharpen them.
Largely, this is a book about secrets—and often, how secrets aren’t really secret. How people choose to make them “secret” by just ignoring them, or lying to themselves about them. How secrets might remain so because others refuse to hear them. The intimate depiction of Linda’s childhood, of her unique sense of the world, makes the other characters seem that much more closed off. And it’s clear why the characters who do share a deep, personal bond with Linda are so special to her.
As you might expect, the prose is terrific—I don’t know that you can successfully write a book that is so introspective without terrific prose. I initially thought of this as an MFA novel because of how particularly excellent it is on a sentence level, but Truong has no writing MFA, so what the hell do I know. Point being, people in MFAs love putting together great sentences (there was and is a 4000-level course at my school titled “The Sentence”), and Bitter in the Mouth has some exquisite sentences. I don’t know that there’s any great effect to it—the most insightful, or lyrical, or witty sentences do not show up at the emotional/thematic peaks of the book, they’re really frequent and evenly distributed—though it does fit the character, who has a dry wit. And it makes the book that much more of an enjoyable read. Here are three examples:
I was very familiar with DeAnne’s belief that the sound of running water could hide grief.(11)
High school was the beginning of our irreversible forced march.(100)
Our town was the hospice for fads.(105)
Bitter in the Mouth manages to pull together a lot of ideas, way more than I discussed in this review. I focused a lot on the synesthesia because I’m fascinated by it from a writer’s perspective, but there’s really so much more going on than just that. Truong layers these various themes across one another, composing a book that reveals greater and greater depth as it goes. It’s a terrific read for someone who loves realistic, intricate characters and dysfunctional families, or for someone who loves good words in good order.