The title of Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth comes from the protagonist’s “auditory-gustatory” synaesthesia, a rare condition that causes Linda Hammerick to literally taste the words she hears. Her own name evokes the taste of fresh mint, while other words and their unpleasant tastes — characterpickledwatermelonrind or prunescallion — she attempts to avoid entirely. The title, however, could perhaps also refer to the bitter secrets of the Hammerick family that hang tangibly in the air but are rarely spoken about openly.
One of the novel’s strengths is how judiciously these ‘secrets’ are revealed to the reader. Divided into two sections, CONFESSION and REVELATION, the novel’s final pages deliver several exposés that entirely change everything the reader has learnt up to that point. Such a narrative structure makes the basis for an intensely enjoyable novel: its pace is slow, but the thorough examination of one girl’s family and its skeletons creates a vibrant, detailed picture of dysfunction and diaspora in 20th century southern America.
The main focus of the novel is arguably what it’s like to grow up different from your family and friends. Linda’s synaesthesia is a burden that prevents her from true emotional intimacy, the only person who knows about it is her childhood best friend Kelly, whose short-lived attempt to catalogue the ‘incomings’ fizzles out quickly. While Linda’s great-uncle’s homosexuality is never discussed, leaving him to live his life in ashamed solitude. The two characters are painted as unlikely life companions: both are described as each other’s “first loves”, and both act as each other’s confidantes through the years, but there are some secrets that even these two feel they cannot share.
Linda and ‘Baby’ Harper bond over their mutual exclusion from the family mainstream, and one of the novel’s legacies is its undeniable assertion that, while blood is supposedly thicker than water, the taste it leaves is undeniably bitter.