Rating 4 stars
Read for Women in Translation Month
Umami is Laia Jufresa’s debut novel, translated from Spanish by Sophie Hughes. Set in Mexico City in the first few years of the 21st century, it moves back and forth in time to tell the story of the residents of Belldrop Mews. It’s a tale of love and loss, of chances not taken, and of secrets that refuse to remain secret.
Umami is the name of one of the five houses in the block. The others are named for the remaining flavour sensors of the tongue. Belldrop Mews is shown in plan form at the start of the book. Overlaid is the shape of a tongue, with the house names listed – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami.
The owner of the block, Alfonso, lives in the house called Umami. Twelve-year-old Ana lives next door in the house named Salty, with her parents and two brothers. Her parents also rent the house called Sweet, and use it to give music lessons. Marina, an artist, resides in Bitter at the front of the block. Ana’s best friend Pina lives in Sour with her dad, Beto.
The block is painted an odd lilac colour until Marina acquires some cheap paint in coral, and the new paint job makes Belldrop Mews look like the inside of a mouth.
The block is the only place that gets a detailed description. There’s no real sense of the wider city, no sense of the other places that people visit. Jufresa focuses on the interior lives of her characters and their observations of their immediate surroundings in relation to themselves. I found this strangely isolating, perhaps because I was reading the book during my 24th week of not really leaving the house because of the pandemic. I found myself wanting more of a sense of place. At times it made me think of the arid landscapes Flannery O’Connor dropped her characters into. With O’Connor, though, those non-landscapes are still present.
The story begins with Ana wanting to create a milpa. Her ulterior motive is to get out of summer camp and stay at home. Milpas are a traditional way of farming used from Mexico south to Costa Rica. A milpa is a field planted mainly with maize, but also with around a dozen other crops including squash, beans, melons, tomatoes, peppers and sweet potatoes, interspersed between the maize.
Ana introduces her family to the story, and her friend Pina. Her dad and mum are both musicians in the National Symphony Orchestra. Her brothers are away in the US visiting her grandmother. Her American mum stays in the house, reclusive and near silent. There’s a reason for that. Three years previously, her youngest child, Ana’s little sister Luz, drowned in a lake, the lake where Ana and her brothers attend summer camp each year. Ana’s dad is indifferent to but not uninterested in what’s going on around him. Ana might not understand it fully, but she gets across the weight of his grief in her description of their interactions.
Pina is what my mum would have called advanced for her age. She’s twelve going on sixteen, interested in sex, fashion and the smoothing of her body of its emerging puberty. She’s also distracted from her friendship with Ana by the sudden resurfacing of her mother. Chela disappeared without warning when Pina was nine, around the time of Luz’s death. Her dad, Beto, seems inconsequential because of Pina’s obsession with her absent mother.
Luz’s death crosses the stories of each of the residents in different ways. Each of them refers to it in their monologues. Luz also gets her own story, told in a way that rolls between how a five-year-old would speak and how a novelist writes a five-year-old. Luz occupies a liminal space, unseen by the people around her.
In Belldrop Mews, Marina takes English lessons from Ana’s mum, Linda, who is only free to do this because she is on compassionate leave from the orchestra she performs in with her husband Victor. Marina is different; she sees colours and the world differently to other people. She passes in and out of hospital, where doctors try to recalibrate her brain through various treatments and medications. She has a difficult relationship with her father, who sends her guilt money.
Alfonso lost his wife around the time of Luz’s death. He’s an anthropologist, an expert in amaranths. He, too, had a milpa, but his was for research, to see how this ancient, symbiotic farming technique worked. After his wife died, he neglected it. He misses his wife, Noelia as the person who grounded him. He and Linda have secret meetings in grief in the days following their losses, flavoured with tequila and vodka. He and Ana have an understanding that crosses the generations that separate them. Ana used to tend the milpa with him. Its deterioration is what inspires her to plant her own.
The story builds in blocks of narrative that shift backwards in time, each block moving from 2004 to 2000, so that we learn in retrospect what led to the present moment. We discover the secrets in the residents’ pasts, the traumas and tragedies that make them who they are. Jufresa shines a light on the experiences that form us, the things from childhood and adulthood, the things we are told about ourselves by other people, the things we don’t choose but have to endure. She shows that, behind the fronts we present to the world, we all have things about ourselves that we don’t actively share, even with those closest to us, but that seep out through the cracks in our façades.
I enjoyed it, but found the structure Jufresa has used interrupted rather than enhanced the flow of the story. It felt like a set of short stories hung together to make a novel. I liked the characters, but didn’t feel they were given enough room to breathe because of the presence of the book’s structure.
In particular, I liked Marina and her coining of portmanteau words to describe colours and emotions. I also liked Ana’s dad, in his brief appearances, and pictured him as similar to Niko Polastri from Killing Eve (I was going to link to his fandom entry but, having not yet watched series 3, I gave myself spoilers and don’t want to do that for anyone else). And I liked the use of Luz’s narration as a device for revealing the throwaway teasing that leads to tragedy.
Umami is a good book, written around an interesting idea for a format. It builds slowly to its conclusion, but it didn’t fully enclose me in its world.