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Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong & Ancestral Truths by Sara Maitland (thoughts)

December 18, 2014

As I mentioned on Sunday, I’ve been craving novels featuring the kind of intellectual women who are prone to analysing everything about them. In particular, I love these heroines when they are also facing the collapse of carefully constructed lives. That might sound a little heartless, but as someone whose own life has not at all followed the post-college ‘five year plan,’ I love following along as these women sort through their internal complexities. After all, they’re fictional, so I’m not wishing disaster on real people. ;)
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Both Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong & Ancestral Truths by Sara Maitland feature women like this, women at crossroads, who have both have returned home to their quirky families after years of avoidance. Linda, the heroine of Truong’s novel, has synthesia; she tastes words. Growing up in a small Southern town, all she wants to do is fit in, so she keeps it a secret. This could easily become gimmicky, but Truong is a gifted enough author to avoid that trap. Instead, both the large and small ramifications of such a ‘difference’ are explored. During dialogue in the book (much of it narrated by Linda, so it’s not terribly dialogue heavy), the taste of a word immediately follows the spoken word in italics (without even a space). This of course makes it more difficult to read, and the distraction seemed a wonderful way to demonstrate why Linda can’t always follow conversations terribly well. It was also a fascinating reminder of how much of our own culture is oral; I can’t imagine sitting through, say, a school lecture with a constant barrage of tastes in my mouth (not all words have a taste but a lot do). There aren’t many books that feature narrators physically different from the norm, so I’m always thrilled to come across one. Although I don’t have synesthesia, I could easily relate to having a body that reacts differently than most people’s, but whose reactions are entirely invisible to others. Anyway, I also loved how Linda is consciously constructing the story of her life, occasionally breaking the fourth wall. Once again, in lesser hands it could have felt pretentious or gimmicky, but in this case it felt perfectly organic to Linda, much of whose life has been related to school & the legal profession (known for its precise, artificially constructed language) or the written word (she and her best friend conduct most of their relationship via letters). I could not read this book quickly enough, resenting anything that had me set it down; luckily I read it via my Nook, so turning pages was easy. ;) I loved it from the first page and all the way through to the end; when I finished I was so glad I’d gotten to go on a journey with her. In fact, it was so good that I’m considering reading Truong’s other novel, The Book of Salt, even though it fictionalises real people, a device that I do not like. I highly recommend Bitter in the Mouth to anyone who loves strong prose, fascinating characters, stories about finding yourself, or Southern books. This is all of that and much more!
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I have read and loved several of Sara Maitland’s nonfiction books (in fact, I just reread From the Forest last week, and it was just as delicious the second time around), so I’ve been wanting to read her fiction. My Texan library didn’t have any of it, but my new library has a few of her novels! I chose to begin with Ancestral Truths because of the blurb:

Unable to remember exactly what happened on the mountain in Zimbabwe and trying to come to terms with the loss of her hand in the accident, Clare is taken home to Scotland where her large, loving, questioning, and uncomfortably acute family become almost unbearable.

Unusually large families way too interested in each other’s business? A newly disabled heroine? In Scotland? Irresistible!

The novel was everything I expected and more: Clare has seven siblings, several nieces and nephews, a very strong-willed mother and more quietly strong-willed father, and they’re all on holiday together at an old hunting estate in the highlands. There’s a very strong religious element to the book, as I expected from reading her nonfiction (not in the preachy sense, just in that she’s interested in how religion, especially high Anglicism/Catholicism, can be relevant to ‘moderns’). There are also emotional break-downs in evidence; all of the siblings are facing their own struggles, and we get to peek into the lives of very different personalities and situations. Some of them have to come to grips with the darker side of their own nature, and I thought this was all handled powerfully. They snipe at each other the way that families do, occasionally descending into cruelty, but they’re ultimately held together by very tight bonds of love and support, and that creates the scaffolding of the book. We also get to see a chilling portrayal of Clare’s decade-long relationship with David, who is insidiously emotionally abusive as well as almost a distillation of white male privilege in his cavalier assumption that he is always right and his needs are always the most important. It was terrifyingly accurate, a mirror of patriarchy at its worst, but he still felt like a real person, not a cardboard cutout. As we learn from the very beginning, Clare was on holiday with David, when they decided to climb the mountain, only for Clare to be found unconscious with a crushed hand several days later, and David nowhere to be found. She can’t remember what happened, or if she killed David, but she knows she’s glad he’s dead, and while she seems safe from any legal consequences, much of the book deals with her personal reactions to such a mystery. (I’m over my word limit already, but I will say that while I was nervous about how Maitland would write about Zimbabwe, especially since from the beginning there’s hint at spirits who inhabit the mountain, I ultimately think she did a good job, judging from my American perspective, whose knowledge of colonial literary problems comes from reading a handful of contemporary African writers’ thoughts on the issue.)

I don’t think I’m explaining myself terribly well. I adored this book on both an emotional and intellectual level and found it perfectly satisfying. That being said, I don’t think it’s for everyone: if you like neat & tidy fiction, with everything wrapped up on the final page, or you’re more interested in plot than character development, you will likely be annoyed by Ancestral Truths. If on the other hand you love overly analytical, self-aware novels, prone to dissect every emotion and dredge up seemingly random anecdotes, with characters whose internal contradictions make them all the more real, even while they’re found in the patently literary trope of a giant family running about a Scottish estate, you will probably settle into this as happily as I did. I truly loved this and am already imagining my reread, so that last sentence was written with affection. I’m thrilled to have easy access to more of her novels, as she’s definitely a writer after my own heart.

These books, with their emotional layers and acknowledgement of the power of storytelling, are examples of what I mean by books that, incidentally or not, help me figure out how to live. My reactions to Linda and Clare, and the people around them, helped me see myself in a different light. It’s not that they included a pithy moral summing up, a la Aesop’s fables, but after finishing both books I had a vague sense of being wiser, more capable of living, than before I had read them. Some books I really like or love for all kinds of reasons, but when I finish them they stay between their covers. Others, including both of these, somehow catch in my soul. Ironically, many of these books are the ones I avoid blogging about, as if their power is too precious to expose to the world at large. They are the ones that make me resonate with Susan Hill’s declaration: “If you cut me open, you will find volume after volume, page after page, the contents of every one I have ever read, somehow transmuted and transformed into me.” These are the books I would bleed.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. queenofthepark permalink
    December 18, 2014 6:10 pm

    Can’t wait to try Sara Maitland as a novelist. Her personal essays inThe Tablet (UK) are always so engaging and provocative
    I do admire your capacity for slow reading as well as re reading, especially the latter. And your own engaging provocative words

  2. December 19, 2014 7:02 am

    I sometimes find I end up never reviewing a book I really love, too. Or not until much later. These sound amazing. I haven’t read either of these authors before.

  3. Amanda permalink
    December 20, 2014 4:45 pm

    Thanks for the reviews Eva. I love your description at the end of how these books effected you. Very moving.

  4. December 21, 2014 8:48 am

    Both of these books sound amazing! You have such a way with words when explaining what exactly about these novels worked so well for you, and I am deeply interested in both. I can always count on you to bring books I’d never heard of to my attention – thank you and I will seek them both out!

  5. December 21, 2014 8:35 pm

    I keep forgetting that I want to give Monique Truong a try! For some reason I had her in mind as a Louisiana writer (probably because she came to America from Vietnam after the war; loads and loads of Vietnamese immigrants ended up in New Orleans), but in any case, Bitter in the Mouth sounds wonderful.

  6. December 28, 2014 1:01 pm

    Ancestral Truths sounds like an amazing book. I haven’t read anything by Sara Maitland before, I like the premise of a family gathering – makes me think of Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding, which is teeming with members of an extended family.

Thank you for commenting! For a long while, my health precluded me replying to everyone. Yet I missed the conversation, so I'm now making an effort to reply again. It might take a few days though, and there will be times when I simply can't. Regardless, I always read and value what you say.

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