Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bitter in the Mouth

by Monique Truong
Finished November 2010

It's too bad I didn't write about this as soon as I finished reading it. I've forgotten some of the details. Anyway, I noticed it because it's about synesthesia, a neurological condition in which two or more of the senses are experienced at the same time. That's not a good explanation, but it so difficult to explain in a few words.

I first read about synesthesia years ago in a fascinating book called The Man Who Tasted Shapes by Richard Cytowic. Not long ago I read a juvenile novel called A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass about a synesthete who "hears colors." Famous people with synesthesia include Vladimir Nabokov, Duke Ellington, Franz Listz, Richard Feynman, Nicola Tesla and Wassily Kandinsky. A synesthete who "tastes shapes" would actually feel three dimensional shapes in his hand whenever he tasted anything. A person who "hears colors" would actually see colors, not simply imagine them, when hearing sounds.

The protagonist of Bitter in the Mouth experiences tastes when hearing someone speak. Sounds themselves would not bring on the tastes and singing would not bring on any tastes. It only happened when a person would speak.

"'Kellycannedpeaches,' I said, 'I better goboiled carrots. I'm at workNillaWafer stillsourcream. I'll call youcannedgreenbeans as soonTang as I knowgrapejelly more.'"

Only certain passages of the book are written this way, thank goodness, but those passages help us to understand, even just a little bit, how frustrating mixed sensations must be.

Linda Hammerick is the synesthete and the book is about her struggle to understand and love her unusual self and to understand and love her family. We learn Linda's story very slowly as pieces of information are revealed through flashbacks. It's like learning about a friend. We wouldn't sit down and say, "Now tell me your life story." We learn about our friend through conversations and experiences. That's what this book is like.

It's so interesting and the depiction of Linda's synesthesia seems so real that I wonder if the author has the condition herself.

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