Flavors of Life

Umami, by Laia Jufresa, translated by Sophie Hughes, (Oneworld Publications), 240 pages, release date 13 September, 2016

I am deeply grateful for publishers like Oneworld that are offering contemporary international fiction in translation. There’s a special sort of bibliophilic treat in sharing literature’s now from another country.

Umami may seem like an unlikely title for a recent work of fiction set in Mexico City. For a Japanese novel? Maybe. For a cookbook? Yes, that’s been done. But Umami is exactly the right title for this novel, a fact that becomes clearer and clearer as one reads.

The novel’s characters live in a Mexico City mews owned by a widowed professor of Agriculture, the man who introduced the concept of umami to Mexico. He’s named the five small houses surrounding the mews after the five flavors: sour, salty, sweet, bitter, and unmami—the house he lives in. As the names of their homes might suggest, this little community has seen its share of both joy and loss. The Professor mourns his wife. Teenaged Ana—and the rest of her family—mourn the death of her younger sister Luz. Ana’s best friend misses the mother who abandoned her years ago and who appears briefly and unexpectedly before disappearing yet again. These are characters simultaneously familiar and new—and their newness springs not just from their cultural location, but also from Laia Jufresa’s ability to create surprising, yet satisfying personalities.

The novel is narrated from multiple perspectives, which adds to the richness of Jufresa’s characterizations. Each key moment in the novel happens in more than one way, and readers have the pleasurable puzzle of weaving together a reality from these different threads.

When you want a surprising, detail-rich novel with broad emotional range, Umami will offer just the literary meal you’re looking for.

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