Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Monique Truong/THE BOOK OF SALT

In the late 1920s, a young Vietnamese man finds himself in Paris, working as the family chef for "the Steins": Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. This is a story about food and love and love for food, told by a man who experiences and describes the world, from French-colonized Vietnam to Golden Age Paris, by its flavors. "Binh" (we never learn his true name, since everyone mispronounces it) narrates snatches of his five years with the Steins, overlaying his, well, knife-sharp observations with his own story: his obscure and lowly birth and upbringing; his first job in the kitchens of a French-owned plantation house; the tragedies and frustrations that took him to Paris; his day-to-day life observing two of the most famously colorful figures of the 20th century.

For me, this book was a great success of fiction. Truong deftly weaves a net of tastes, smells, cultural observations, and subtle but embracing historical details and uses it to capture a story of intense and understated human drama. I am a little mind-boggled at how cleverly Truong tackled issues like colonial oppression, sexuality, and alcohol abuse in a book that is a total joy to read--lush, absorbing, simultaneously sad and curious. The Book of Salt does not even need a plot (it doesn't really have one, as you might have guessed from my inability to succinctly pin one down). But this book is my idea of evidence for why we should support literary fiction: it is meaningful, accessible, beautiful, and unlike any other novel you've read.

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