Is “taste” one of the publishing trends of 2016? Oneworld Publications seem to think so as hot on the heels of “Sweetbitter” by Stephanie Danler comes “Umami”. This is the fifth of our taste sensations first recognised by the Japanese. It is variously described within the book but consider “that flavour that floods your taste buds without you being quite able to put your finger on it”. In Eastern cuisine it can be sometimes attributed to Monosodium Glutamate, in English it translates to a “richness” – for those of us who like it Marmite represents “Umami”.
One of the characters in Mexican author’s Jufresa’s novel, anthropologist Alfonso Semitel is very keen on “Umami”, has written a book about the subject and developed a housing complex laid out like the map of the tongue, naming his rental accommodation “Sweet”, “Sour”, “Bitter”, “Salty” and “Umami” (where he lives). This is the tale of these residents.
The story has five narrative strands which jump around between 2000 to 2004. I know by telling you this I have already put off some potential readers. In 2004 we meet Ana, in a first-person narrative. She is developing a “milpa” (a system of planting of corn, beans and squash) in her yard. Alfonso calls her “Agatha Christie” because of her consumption of the British author’s crime novels. Ana lives in “Salty” with her family, mourning a deceased younger sister.
In 2003 we meet Marina, an artist and resident of “Bitter”. This is a third-person narrative. In 2002 it’s Alf himself, adapting to live without his cardiologist wife with a first person narrative. 2001 it’s Luz, the tragic sister of Ana and in 2000 it is back to the third-person narrative for Pina, the girls’ friend who lives with her father in “Sour”.
I found these changes of narrative style and time zones initially quite difficult to come to grips with, and also a little unnecessary. Throw in the unfamiliarity with Mexican culture and I wasn’t sure I was going to last the distance, but I did, and at times this novel really did draw me in. It is divided into four sections and then again into the five year groups which move back in time making it seem disjointed. I just cannot see why this structure has been adopted because the story is involving enough and the writing certainly impressive enough without it. I want to be immersed in a book not held back by a complex retrograde structure. It’s hard not to keep leafing back through the book until the characters begin to really make an impression (for me around the third section). As far as I am concerned this is the fault in a book which could have been up there with my favourite reads so far this year. I got to like the characters and the plot moves in some way towards the demise of Luz but I think there needs to be a reason for structuring the book as it is and I’m still not sure what it is.
Umami is published in July 2016 by Oneworld Publications