The Librarian Is In

ONEWORLD PUBLICATIONS

By LEANNE GALLETLY

User Experience & Digital Scholarship Librarian Leanne Galletly is liaison to Classics, English & American Literatures, French, Italian, Studio Art, and Russian.

Umami

by Laia Jufresa, 2014,

translated by Sophie Hughes in 2016

“Nobody warns you about this, but the dead, or at least some of them, take customs, decades, whole neighborhoods with them. Things you thought you shared but which turn out to be theirs. When death does you part, it’s also the end of what’s mine is yours.”

― “Umami,” p. 34

The What

“Umami” is largely the characterization of life after loss; acknowledging that the world goes on after you lose someone, but is forever changed. Author, Laia Jufresa animates the lives of five neighbors whose homes are connected by a courtyard in Mexico City. Twelve-year-old best friends, Ana and Pina are the central characters to the story and frequently pop in and out of the other narrators accounts. Ana’s younger sister Luz unexpectedly died while on a family vacation a few years earlier, while Pina’s mother left her family without saying goodbye; the girls frequently reflect on and grapple with their missing loved ones. 

The other narrators include: six-year-old Luz, Ana’s sister, who narrates her part almost up to the time of her death; the neighborhood landlord, Alfonso who is perpetually grieving the loss of his wife to cancer; then there is Marina, a 20-something who struggles with loneliness, lack of support and unstable mental health. Each character handles survival differently and every one of them is relatable, whether you have experienced the loss of a loved one or dropped your ice cream on the sidewalk. Jufresa utilizes an unusual pacing, where each chapter is associated with a year in the lives of the characters, the chapters do not align chronologically, which can be a little confusing for the reader. 

“Umami” is the first novel from Laia Jufresa, who grew up in the Veracruz Cloud Forest, Paris, and now lives in Edinburgh. The book won the English Pen Award, which honors outstanding books in translation. After reading Umami, I learned that Jufresa first wrote the book in English, then upon finishing, she translated the book back into Spanish! 

There is also a lot of wordplay and word creation in Umami, which reads very well in English. An impressive process coming from my monolingual brain. I thought this was particularly interesting given that the English version of the novel, which we have at Davis Family Library, was not translated by Jufresa. (I have now ordered the Spanish version!)

The Why

I found the book from the “Indie Next” reading list which I obsessively steal from every bookstore I visit. I am also very interested in visiting Mexico City, so I was excited to read some fiction that is set there. For future travelers to Mexico City, this book is not by any means a travel guide, through reading you will learn the lives of five individuals who live in the same community, as well as some insight into ancient Mexican food production through the expertise and curiosity of some of the narrators.   

This book is an engaging read, but not for reasons related to the plot, which I have been struggling to remember and had a lot of trouble following due to the chronological disruptions. What I really loved about the book was Jufresa’s ability to reflect on and put words to the existence of losing a loved one. 

The characterization of Ana and Pina was also expertly crafted, never feels childish, but also not too grown-up. Reading about these girls at the start adolescence while, coping with their respective loss is truly engaging. Not lost me is the intentional umami-ness of the book itself, inherently hard to describe, the rich and savory flavors of umami aptly describe this book. If you like character-driven, deep, poignant stories this book is for you; this book is not for those who need action, adventure or plot resolution.

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