Umami, if (like me) you didn’t know, is a flavour:
“Umami is one of the five basic flavours our taste buds can identify. The others, the ones we all know, are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then there’s Umami, more or less new to us in the West. We’re talking a century or so. It’s a Japanese word. It means delicious.”
So explains Alfonso, an anthropologist who has spent his life studying diet, and owner of Belldrop Mews, the setting of Laia Jufresa’s novel, which he has divided into houses each named after one of the five flavours. That the novel bears the name of a difficult to identify taste seems appropriate as what we experience with umami on the palate, it achieves tonally. Written with a deceptive lightness, and some humour, it is, at heart, about grief and loss.
Alfonso is among those who lose someone close to them (his wife, Noelia) but the death which resonates through the novel most powerfully is that of a child, Luz. Her sister, Ana, makes a comparison between Alfonso’s grief and her mother’s:
“He carries his grief better than my mom. He doesn’t act like a ghost, or go totally nuts over songs. At least not in front of me he doesn’t.”
Alonso also makes the comparison:
“…in the same year my wife died, aged fifty-five, so did the five-year-old daughter of my tenants. Noelia’s death seemed almost reasonable compared to Luz’s, which was so incomprehensible, so unfair. But death is never fair, nor is fifty-five old.”
We know what both Ana and Alfonso think as this is a novel of many voices scattered across time. The novel itself doesn’t quite “tell it backwards” as the quote from Carol Ann Duffy’s poem Last Post suggests, but each of four sections do, beginning in 2004 and retreating towards 2000, the year before the deaths took place. This has the effect of focusing on the grieving process before exploring the causes; the novel is concerned with the living rather than the dead. (Jufresa has said that the five year time period leads us towards the end of grief, and that the structure reflects the waves of grief as those who have lost someone return to the same memories again and again).
Other characters in the novel have also suffered losses, for example Ana’s best friend, Pina. Her mother left her without warning and she has heard nothing from her since. In Marina’s case (the occupier of ‘Bitter’), the separation is voluntary:
“It was the first time she’d left her parents’ home, where she’d lived all nineteen years of her life… She didn’t want her family to know where she was, not yet, so she mustered all her charm and said she found the house names to be very original…”
Marina, however, struggles to escape her past: in and out of therapy, and hospitalised at one point as the result of an eating disorder. An artists who is unable to paint, she instead names the colours she finds around her:
“…a hard, futuristic light appears, as pristine as the pills she takes. This one, she decides, is called whozac.”
As the novel opens in 2004 Ana is intent on creating her own garden: “A proper, traditional milpa, with corn and beans and squash.” The project suggests a renewal of life, but one which is connected to the past. The novel’s structure prevents this becoming the predictable culmination of an obvious story arc, emphasising that the grief will never entirely disappear, but demonstrating why the novel does not appear gloomy or depressing despite its subject matter. This optimistic tone is also created by the wonderful chorus of voices which Jufresa has created – not only unique to each of the five characters which narrate, but also changing according to the year. (This is, of course, particularly true of Ana who develops from a child to a young adult in this time). In this she is ably supported by translator Sophie Hughes.
Umami is an extremely accomplished first novel which tackles it subject in a way that is neither sentimental nor despondent. In it we enter a community in troubled times, and leave feeling, perhaps more hopeful, but certainly more human.