This novel was translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes and was the winner of an English Pen Translates award
This is Women In Translation month #WIT
Umami is a novel about loss, grief and craving told from 5 narrative points of view over 5 years. From the beginning we know certain facts: Ana is planting a milpa or garden instead of going to camp; it is the third anniversary of the drowning death of her little sister Luz; Pina’s mother, who had been absent for three years, has returned; Alf, a retired anthropologist, is coming to terms with the death of his wife; and Marina, an artist, is dealing with an eating disorder. All of this takes place in Belldrop Mews in Mexico City. The mews are Alf’s property and its units are named Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter and Umami — the fifth taste. As Laia Jufresa takes the reader both forward and backward in time, we learn the tragic cause of Luz’s death and the sources of other characters’ pain as well as their hunger. Jufresa’s food related imagery and play with words, her humor and stark honesty about death and loss, are skillfully woven throughout this witty, poignant novel.
Jufresa divides the novel into four parts, and each part contains chapters for years 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, and 2000, in that order. Ana, who is 13, narrates 2004. It is summer and her younger brothers have gone north to their grandmother’s house on a lake in Michigan. Ana’s mother Linda is American, her father Victor is native to Mexico. Both are musicians, although Linda has retired from the orchestra since Luz’s death in 2001. Ana has convinced her parents that her time will be better spent at home planning out a garden or milpa at the mews. She has consulted Alf, whose specialty in anthropology was ancient grains, amaranth, and umami, the “fifth taste”. Ana will spend the summer dealing with her mother’s moods and inexplicable behaviors as the anniversary of Luz’s death approaches. Ana is also trying to figure out her relationship with Pina, a friend and neighbor. The return of Pina’s mother Chela after having abandoned Pina and her dad three years ago irritates and angers Ana. But working on the milpa gives her a sense of purpose and a recognition of its and her own beauty.
Marina narrates the year 2003 chapters. She has by this time lived in Belldrop Mews for several years, in Bitter house, and is studying art at school. Marina has a troubled past that reveals itself slowly. She has an eating disorder and has spent time in an institution. She has also severed ties with her family. One of Marina’s talents or quirks is inventing names for colors. So, for example, the purple paint that Alf used to paint the corridors of the mews reminds her of the sheets at the asylum; thus the color is “asylilac”. The white of her walls, which harkens to promise and possibility, is dubbed “whomise.” Marina is struggling with her disorder, a problematic love affair and a general feeling of lacking self-definition. A visit from a stranger on a rainy evening will cause her to make a decision that will impact several lives at the mews as well as her own.
Alf narrates the year 2002 and is the heart of Belldrop Mews. The property, once a mansion, had been in his family for generations. After the 1985 earthquake, it sustained damage (and got its name Belldrop), and Alf decided that he would divide the property into separate houses inspired by his anthropological studies. He is deeply interested in the idea of a fifth taste, of umami, which is characterized as savory or meaty, but which he also opines could also simply be some indescribable craving. In 2002, Alf is consumed with writing the story of his deceased wife Noelia. She was an intelligent woman, a cardiologist, who was good at categorizing people and was obsessed with her horoscope. She was a mix of civilized and primitive, in Alf’s words. Noelia more or less called the shots in their marriage, and Alf had no problem with that; he recognizes that he really was terrible at reading situations and people while Noelia excelled at it and taught him much. Noelia was the one who decided they would have no children, then decided they should try, though they remained childless. Alf seems to pale in comparison to Noelia, and he seems listless and drifting without her. Yet he is an inspiration and friend to Ana and even to Linda after they both experience loss.
The other two narrators are Luz (5 years old and approaching death in 2001) and Pina (9 years old and watching her parents’ marriage fall apart in 2000). They spend much of their time observing and as children have very little agency of their own. Pina’s story of going on an unpleasant vacation with her parents is heartbreaking to read and probably familiar to other children of divorce. She feels invisible and useless and refers to the periods after her parents’ worst fights as a “dirty silence.” Luz, age five, narrates her story from the family vacation in Michigan with grandma Emma, and it is hard to read because we know how it ends but not why. Luz enjoys being with her grandmother and mother, and they spend a lot of time outdoors hunting for mushrooms (a food with umami) and learning about the lakes and ponds from Emma. Ana and Pina can be a bit mean to Luz (as older sibs often are), but Luz generally lets things roll off her back. She trusts her family and listens to what they say. Sadly, they are less attentive to Luz and have no idea where her thoughts or her body go.
Umami is a thought provoking novel. Each character has some craving that is hard to define or that cannot be satisfied due to a loss or lack of something. While that might sound a bit depressing and dark to read, the novel is surprisingly upbeat. As one character notes at a critical moment, she is on the side of those who face life, who don’t flee from the bad but rather deal with it alongside the good. This is what makes the story so engaging — characters who push forward despite what life has thrown at them. They may not always succeed, but their craving for that satisfaction propels them onward.