The Book of Salt
by Monique Truong
Publisher: Mariner Books
2003, Paperback, 261 pages
Reviewed by Sarah Schneider
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Monique Truong’s debut novel, The Book of Salt, caught my eye because both the cover blurb and the “Staff Picks” note on the shelf promised a tour through Lost Generation Paris, through the eyes of a Vietnamese cook employed by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. That…was not exactly the plot of this book. Far better (and far less predictably), this is the ever-so-slightly unreliably narrated account of a queer Vietnamese man with remarkable culinary gifts navigating colonialism, homesickness, identity, and longing. Almost incidentally, one of his ports of call is working as a cook for the Stein-Toklas household. While Stein and Toklas are major characters, they are hardly the focus of the book.
The story jumps back and forth in time as Bình, the narrator, takes the reader along on his journey; from a troubled childhood in French-occupied Vietnam, to a humiliating stint serving in the French Governor-General’s household, through years as a shipboard cook, and ultimately, as a cook in France. Bình struggles to express himself to those around him; in Vietnam, his sexuality and social standing limit what he can say, and in France, the language barrier sets him apart. His inner dialogues, though, are as rich and nuanced as his spoken French is not (a sequence where he attempts to describe a pineapple will be painfully funny to anyone who has ever tried to navigate a grocery store in an unfamiliar language). Bình muses on belonging, loneliness, and cross-cultural misunderstandings. He is an incisive observer of both the dramas in the Stein-Toklas household, and of Parisian street life. And then there is the food.
Do not read this book if you are hungry. The only way Bình is able to consistently express himself across cultures is through food, and his descriptions of what he is cooking are every bit as vivid as what he is thinking. The meal of figs and roast duck Bình serves at the beginning of the romance that drives much of the novel’s plot is enough to make even this vegetarian’s mouth water. Truong isn’t just out to give the reader hunger pangs, though. Food is a compelling story of its own; who cooks it, how they cook it, who they cook it for. Many of the portions of The Book of Salt set in Vietnam take place in kitchens, both the kitchen where Bình cooks with his mother, and the kitchen where Bình, his brother, and an all-Vietnamese staff spare no effort in crafting unimpeachably French meals for their colonial overlords (no “fusion” cuisine here!). The latter efforts, though, carry a certain whiff of collaboration, and, of course, no facility with French cooking will ever yield a promotion. In Paris, meanwhile, Bình is always seen as foreign, other, in spite of both his facility with the city’s cuisine, and his intimacy with the city’s residents, in his job as private cook. And ironically, the longer Bình remains in Paris, and the more distant he feels from his Vietnamese roots, the more he slips elements of Vietnamese cuisine into his work.
The Book of Salt runs a relatively short 261 pages, but fits in a complex, multilayered plot, without ever feeling overstuffed. The elegance of the language likely helps with this. Just one example, on the printing press where one of Bình’s brothers works. “He removed each block and cleaned the letters while they were still warm and cloaked in a soft scab of ink, getting his brush into the sickle moons of each “C,” the surrendering arms of each “Y.” While reading this, I sometimes found myself reading over the same paragraph several times, just to savor the words. I can’t think of anything more appropriate for the story of a cook.
— Sarah Schneider