The Book of Salt by Monique Turong was an amazing read. The author wove a story from a few lines in The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book which describes the Indochinese cook that worked for her and Gertrude Stein in 1930’s Paris.
The book begins as Binh is deciding whether to return to his native Vietnam after having worked for 5 years for “my Mesdames” as he calls Stein and Toklas and then takes us through his troubled and pathetic life as a homosexual who was banished from his poor home in Vietnam by his evil father. Along the way – he works in the “royal household” of the ruling French, as a shiphand on an oceanliner and eventually as the cook to one of the most renowned couples in Paris at that time.
Truong carries so many themes throughout the book: homosexuality (both of Binh and his lover “Sweet Sunday Man” (who also happens to be an American exile with some negro blood) and the deep love between Stein and Toklas; the plight of being an invisible servant in which your whole life is spent by people looking right through you; family dynamics (Binh has a very strong relationship with his mother who in her own right is rebellious against the all-powerful patriarch of the family); food and the joys that it can bring (Binh’s descriptions of the preparation of the meals are amazing) and lastly the condition of being an exile.
I thought this book would be much more focused on Stein and Toklas but while the author gave a very clear picture of their life which was centered around their “salon” in which all the intelligentsia of the times – painters (Picasso), writers (Hemingway) – gathered on a weekly basis, she did not go into much detail about who Gertrude Stein was and why she became famous. I did think it was brilliant of Truoung to use Stein and Toklas as the counter-relationship to Binh because she was able to compare and contrast the fate of two outcasts and how one was the center of society while the other spent their life invisible and pathetic.
The writing was flowery, sensual and beautiful and Truong always kept your interest by using a flashback style to weave back and forth between the current time and Binh’s life. So, take a break from your neo-Nazi, right-wing politics, frat boy books and pick up this beatifully, written piece of literature.