First book of 2022!
The Book of Salt is narrated by a Vietnamese man who tells of his experiences in life and love throughout his career as a cook in French households in Saigon and Paris in the 1920s and 30s, including an extended stint as the live-in cook for American author Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas. I read this book because it was picked by my book club.
Read this book if you like stream-of-consciousness books, food books, books from marginalized perspectives (LGBT, POC), historical fiction, and/or character-heavy books. I think it’s definitely worth reading, but I’m not sure if I’ll feel compelled to re-read it.
Skip if: you get frustrated by relatively plotless books that jump around in their timelines from scene to scene; you dislike books that prioritize style at the cost of substance; you dislike books where the perspective isn’t all that consistent or strict (e.g. narrator knows things they probably shouldn’t/couldn’t if it were realism).
The Book of Salt took me a long time to read because of the prose. It’s consistently very rich in metaphors, sensory details, and digressions to the point where I had to limit my reading of it to only at home and mostly when I wasn’t sleepy as opposed to bringing it on the subway with me or reading it right before bed, because I found it very easy to lose focus in the middle of a sentence or paragraph and need to start over, which is rough when the paragraphs sometimes fill an entire page. The prose, which you could call flowery or poetic or indulgent, was very hit and miss for me. When I was starting the book I thought “oh boy, here we go.” In particular the sentence “Their flashing cameras, like the brilliant smiles of long-lost friends, had quickly warmed my Mesdames’ collective heart” on the first page, coupled with several “of course”-es in the first few paragraphs, made me apprehensive that the book was going to be very writing-y. The book is indeed that heavy with metaphors and narrative interrupting phrases, but they get more skillful and less distracting in the middle of the book. I found myself noticing them again at the end, so I wonder if the author maybe wrote the beginning and the end first and then wrote the middle.
Truong’s writing is emotionally vivid. I thought the book especially shined in the scenes focused on the past because then the language was an aesthetically pleasing vehicle for narrative and emotion. The parts about Bình’s family, especially the scenes involving his mother, were particularly moving. But I felt that the writing style hampered the more intense emotional moments. Because there is never a break in the borderline purple prose, many of the emotional moments hit more or less the same way because they are all danced around and never described plainly.
The overall narrative of the book was an interesting juxtaposition of Bình’s experience as a gay, poor, Vietnamese man in Saigon and Paris with Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein’s lives as gay, wealthy, American women in the Paris salon scene of the 1920s-30s. Bình’s narration made Alice B. Toklas seem much more likable than Getrude Stein. In a way the narrator’s position in his romantic relationships is similar to Miss Toklas’s position in hers–both are relatively in the background and are generally more sensible and self-sufficient than their partners. When I read historical fiction that dramatizes direct dialogue and detailed mannerisms of famous people in private settings, I always wonder what the author’s process was for arriving at their characterizations. Did Truong read a bunch of Gertrude Stein first? Kind of makes me want to read Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, although if it’s anything like Tender Buttons I’ll skip it. There were some scenes that bothered me from a suspension of disbelief standpoint. The narrator says many times that he speaks no English and barely any French, yet there are plenty of scenes where he tells about private conversations between Stein and Toklas that he almost certainly couldn’t have understood. To a lesser degree of bothersomeness, there are also scenes between the narrator’s father and mother that it seems unlikely that Bình would have known about; his father didn’t like him enough to tell him about his life and his mother probably wouldn’t have told her youngest son about all the abuse she’d suffered. The degree of metaphoric embellishment in the writing and the sort of ‘floating’ perspective, where rather than being anchored to things Bình would have known, we get scenes from before his conception and scenes that would have transpired in languages he didn’t know, gave the novel a bordering-on-magical-realism feeling. It reminded me at times of Toni Morrison.
Shamefully, I just totally didn’t know that Vietnam was under French colonial occupation in the 1920s. Fiction has been a great way for me to learn more about historical periods I was ignorant of. A book I read last year and really loved, The Poisonwood Bible, taught me a lot about the independence crisis in the Congo in the 60s. Please give me recommendations for more fiction that does this if you have them! Bonus points if POC author and double bonus points if not translated, e.g. originally written in English. I’m not a huge fan of reading translated books as I always worry I’m missing some of the author’s original intent.
This was the third ‘food book’ (as I call them) I’ve read in the past year. Food books are always a little bit alienating to me even though I like them. I think a lot of books, fiction especially, that use food as a storytelling tool do so on the premise that food is universal while also being culturally specific. While a reader might not recognize the dish, the author banks on there being flavors that everyone knows and ingredients that are universally appealing. I’m a vegan, though, and have yet to come across a ‘food book’ that doesn’t rely heavily on imagery of meat-based and other-animal-product-based foods, so that often feels like I don’t belong in this author’s concept of their audience. Please let me know if you have any recommendations for vegan-inclusive ‘food books’! I’d love to read one.