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"The Book of Salt" by Monique Truong

Book of SaltIsolation is a topic that spans lifetimes and generations, an identifiable feeling that crosses cultures and continents. Monique Truong's The Book of Salt is an effort to capture this feeling and describe it with a story. Truong's novel follows the tumultuous life of Binh, a Vietnamese man who is ousted from his home country and as a result emigrates to France, where he serves as a cook for famous Americans Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in their Paris residence.
Though the book begins with Binh's decision to leave for America with the famous literary couple, the bulk of the story resides in a collection of Binh's past memories, waves of his life that often come crashing down.
Truong weaves many themes together to make the story interesting, not the least of which is focusing on those who typically fly under the radar: immigrants, servants, and those with alternative lifestyles (read: same sex orientation) of both genders. The transnational nature of the story (American women living with a Vietnamese man in France, a non-native country for them all) allows for an ambitious cultural cornucopia, often brought together by two things: the sea and food, both entities that greatly affect those who leave their home country.
Using known facts about Stein and Toklas, including their employment of a young Vietnamese cook, Truong colors between historical lines using shades from her own palette, like including recipes intermittently throughout the text.
Though the book is not without its ambiguities (many of Binh's romantic relationships are left unresolved or unclear), for the most part Truong offers a window to the fascinating lives of her unlikely hero and her heroines. The plight of the poor immigrant is particularly poignant in a country where his physical appearance automatically relegates Binh to a place both lonely and sad. Binh's somber words often display Truong's skill as much as they break a reader's heart, as when he says, "I am an Indochinese laborer, generalized and indiscriminate, easily spotted and readily identifiable all the same. It is this curious mixture of careless disregard and notoriety that makes me long to take my body into a busy Saigon marketplace and lose it in the crush. There, I tell myself, I was just a man, anonymous, and, at a passing glance, a student, a gardener, a poet, a chef, a prince, a porter, a doctor, a scholar. But in Vietnam, I tell myself, I was above all just a man."
Perhaps the most compelling reason to pick up Monique Truong's first novel is finding a good narrative among the many poetic and beautiful phrases that enhance the story's richness and texture, not unlike the food which serves as a central connection piece to each of the characters and readers as well. The combination of poetry and plot is a rare find in a world of modern literature where action is present but details and character development are in embarrassingly short supply.
Readers will revel in Binh's wry and humorous observations of human nature just as they will ache in the pain he faces at the hands of his father that haunts him continuously. All in all, Truong is definitely an author to watch, and her first novel should not be passed up; readers would be remiss not to add Salt to their library as well as their kitchen tables.


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