by Laia Jufresa

Overview:It started with a drowning. Deep in the heart of Mexico City, where five houses cluster around a sun-drenched courtyard, lives Ana, a precocious twelve-year-old who spends her days buried in Agatha Christie novels to forget the mysterious death of her little sister years earlier. Over the summer she decides to plant a milpa in her backyard, and as she digs the ground and plants her seeds, her neighbors in turn delve into their past. The ripple effects of grief, childlessness, illness and displacement saturate their stories, secrets seep out and questions emerge Who was my wife? Why did my Mom leave? Can I turn back the clock? And how could a girl who knew how to swim drown?

In prose that is dazzlingly inventive, funny and tender, Laia Jufresa immerses us in the troubled lives of her narrators, deftly unpicking their stories to offer a darkly comic portrait of contemporary Mexico, as whimsical as it is heart-wrenching.

Elaine Marlin (08/16/19): This very unusual, quirky novel actually found ME at my small library. I was walking around the newly refurbished library, looking at books on the shelves, with little hope that a REALLY interesting book would actually be on the shelves. I am so used to ordering the books I want online from the library, because the "good" ones are not usually found at my branch.

This title jumped out at me. I love the term umami. No one I know actually has heard of or understands it. This novel is the winner of the English Pen Award. It is translated in 2016 by a translator named Sophie Hughes. The author was born in Mexico City and currently lives in Germany. This unusually written story, set in Mexico City, takes place in four sections, each section consists of chapters starting in 2004, then working back to 2000. Each chapter is written by a different person (with a very unique voice).

Each is a resident in a group of homes built by one of the main characters: Alf, a widower, an anthropologist specializing in plant history of Mexico, is on leave from his job. He had named each of the homes he rents after a taste: Bitter, Sweet, Salty, Sour, and his home: Umami. As the story progresses (backwards in time), we come to know the residents. Each has had a tragedy, or sad occurence, in their lives. Other of the main characters are Marina, a twenty year old with family issues, eating disorder, and absolutely no sense of self. The other main character is Ana, who lives with her parents who are musicians, two brothers, and a sister who was "almost six" , who drowned. Alf continues to mourn his beloved, complex wife (who was a cardiologist).

This book worked for me because I absolutely gave myself in to the language. There are some profound ideas coming out of the mouths of these characters. They have insight, they have opinions, they show love and they have been hurt by their losses. The eleven year old Ana, in her chapters, had decided to build a garden of corn, beans and squash, using the principals of ancient Mexican growing techniques she learned by reading Alf's book. Alf had taken a year off to mourn his wife who died of pancreatic cancer. He decides to write about her, and is convinced she is able to read all that he writes. As the chapters progress, we learn this couple did not have children. There is a whole subsection of how his wife Noelia, decides they should go to England to buy a reborn doll, which is a whole interesting part of one chapter.

So I will conclude: if 50 people read this book, many will cut it to shreds, many won't bother to finish it, and a few, like me, will have found some very meaningful insights into living, with neighbors, with loss, and sadness and all kinds of things, like umami, the fifth taste, which may exist as an incorporation of the other tastes, and like life, which is a mixture of all of the tastes .
Rating: ****

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