The Book of Salt
Houghton Mifflin, 2003 (2003)
Reviewed by G. Hall
ietnamese-American writer Monique Truong's first novel is the unusual and enticing story of Binh, a Vietnamese man living in Paris in the late 1920's. Born in Saigon during the height of French colonial power, Binh works as a kitchen boy in the Governor General's residence. There he experiences first hand the French arrogance towards the local people - '
The French are all right in France ... When the French are in their colonies they lose their natural inclination toward fraternity, equality and liberty. They leave those ideals behind in Mother France, leaving them to treat us like bastards in the land of our birth.
' When Binh's father disowns him after his relationship with the French head chef is discovered, the 20-year old emigrates to France.
e spends several years working for haughty Madames and Monsieurs before answering an ad reading '
Two American ladies wish to hire a cook
'. These Mesdames turn out to be the famous Gertrude Stein and her companion Alice B. Toklas. Binh's view of their lives is wonderful, including this vivid description of GertrudeStein (all one word as she preferred): '
She carries herself as if she is her own object of desire. Such self-induced lust is addictive in its effect. Prolonged exposure makes those around them weak and helpless
'. One of Truong's many strengths as a writer is her accuracy. How many of us have known people like Stein, who while not conventionally attractive, still gather people around them like moths around a candle flame?
ruong's depiction of Postwar Paris with the Mesdames and their salon at the center of artistic Paris is fascinating. The inside look at the famous Stein-Toklas relationship is also a treat, '
Best they are both in love with GertrudeStein. Miss Toklas fusses over her Lovey and her Lovey lets her
'. Even more interesting is Binh's life as an outsider in Paris where his broken French is '
the language that I dip into like a dry inkwell ... that has made me take flight with weak wings and watched me plummet into silence.
' There are no other Vietnamese in Binh's life so his mother tongue is '
trapped inside my mouth ... and taken the pallor of the dying, the faded colors of the abandoned
'. Binh is also an outsider as a young gay man who is '
a 26-year-old man who still clings to the hope that some day his scholar-prince will come
'. The Mesdames' salons are full of attractive young men and they are Binh's weekly bonus. When he meets his
Sweet Sunday Man
at one of them and starts a relationship, he is in heaven. Of course, the course of true love does not always run smoothly as Binh eventually learns.
he book takes its title from one of GertrudeStein's many notebooks titled
The Book of Salt
. It seems the perfect description of Binh's own life and is described as '
a book about a cook
'. As he peruses it, Binh wonders '
Salt, I thought. GertrudeStein, what kind? Kitchen, sweat, tears. Madame, they are not all the same. Their stings, their smarts, their strengths.
' For Binh, salt has always had many meanings especially the salt of the sea which represents his separation from home, his beloved mother and a culture where he was not an outsider. Truong is a gifted new writer and readers will be enchanted by her lyrical descriptions of people and places and feelings.
The Book of Salt
will be a hard act to follow, but it will be very interesting to see what comes next.
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