In "The Writing Life," Annie Dillard advises would-be writers to find their bone, the thing that drives them to write, and to work as closely to that bone as possible. Dillard also instructs writers — with another corporeal metaphor — to work as closely along the nerve as possible.
Vietnamese American writer Monique Truong's bone is the outsider's plight, and her pen is a scalpel, laying perfect words down along that nerve until even the happiest reader understands what it means to forever stand apart from your family and the larger society you inhabit. "Bitter in the Mouth," Truong's second novel, returns to themes she explored in 2003's lovely "The Book of Salt." In both works, longing for the forbidden wrestles with the necessity of adhering to strict social mores. Beneath this is a thickly insulating layer of family secrets threatening to destroy the Hammerick family: Linda; her parents, Thomas and DeAnne; DeAnne's mother, Iris; and Iris' brother, Harper.
Linda Hammerick is different from the other little girls in Boiling Springs, N.C. She is precociously intelligent. Most unusual of all, she possesses auditory-gustatory synesthesia: All words evoke taste, including her name, Lindamint. Truong evokes Linda's ability by writing dialogue as Linda hears it: Godwalnut, Leoparsnip. The effect can be disconcerting, but it successfully conveys that most elusive of experiences: living inside another's head. Linda craves hearing certain words, like Momchocolatemilk or selfishcornonthecob. Others — prunescallion, Powellonions, youcannedgreenbeans — make her wince.
Only Kellycannedpeaches Powellonions, her dearest friend since childhood, knows about Linda's synesthesia. The girls spend hours together, creating Dolly Parton scrapbooks and, in the manner of best girlfriends, sharing everything. With Kelly's help, Linda learns to defuse what she calls "the incomings" — the sensory barrage from words that makes life difficult. Unfortunately, the most successful defusers of incomings are heavy doses of nicotine and, whenever possible, alcohol.
Few words are free of incomings, or "fire blanks." Dolly Parton's singing fires blanks, as do the lilting cadences of Linda's great uncle, known as Baby Harper (Babyhoney Harpercelery) to Iris and Linda. Baby Harper loves his great-niece unreservedly, which is more than can be said of DeAnne or Iris.
Iris is the novel's truth-teller, a woman whose sentences are cruelly polished stones lobbed at her granddaughter, who learns early on to smash them right back. DeAnne is horrified in her passive way, but Iris Whatley and Linda Hammerick's strangely hostile relationship bolsters each other. DeAnne is detached. She is the sort of woman who doesn't know what to do with a child, much less one like Linda who's a far cry from the Southern belle. Matters are complicated by DeAnne and Thomas' unhappy marriage, endured in polite, excruciating silence, and Thomas' love for their only daughter.
Thomas is a shadow character in the novel, a short-lived presence whose behaviors foment much of the family unrest. He will not survive to see any resolution.
Baby Harper, a lifelong "confirmed bachelor," is Linda's closest confidante. His homosexuality is an object lesson in neither asking nor telling. Like "The Book of Salt's" Binh, he keeps his love for men carefully hidden; unlike Binh, he will finally, belatedly, live almost openly as his true self. The self-appointed family photographer, Baby Harper takes unconventional images that puzzle, amuse, and ultimately enlighten his great-niece.
Truong uses North Carolina history as a lodestar about truths and the ways people refashion them. The character of Linda is aware that truth can be as malleable as Silly Putty, only far less amusing to handle. As Linda reaches adolescence and Dolly Parton gives way to MTV, she and Kelly continue their written correspondence from childhood. Only Kelly's letters change; what were once chatty missives morph into daily "Wade Reports."
Wade (Wadeorangesherbet) is the exceptionally handsome boy who tells Linda jokes at the school bus stop each morning. Wade is handsome, blond, athletic; the formerly overweight, intelligent Kelly diets herself skinny, trading her intellect for popularity; Linda, recognizing herself as a hopeless case in the high school wars, excels academically. But after school, she sneaks over to Wade's house, where the two engage in everything but intercourse. Wade wants to, but Linda cannot bear the idea — it is one of many secrets in this novel, one of many secrets she shares with Kelly.
Linda and Kelly grow up, and with age come adult concerns: what doesn't change is Linda's synesthesia, which is another secret in a life burdened by secrets. Yet Linda never regrets her literal sixth sense: indeed, she cannot imagine life without it. What she truly wants is what all children from damaged families want: an explanation. The truth. What happened. When Linda finally gets her wish, she is utterly changed. To Truong's credit, "Bitter in the Mouth" ends sweetly, though elegiacally. "Bitter's" end is neither bitter nor sweet, but the perfect combination of both: bittersweet, a word requiring no italicized connotation.
Leach is a critic whose reviews have appeared in a variety of publications.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times