I came across the word umami a few years ago while reading an article about food and flavours. There are five basic flavours, sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. The word umami and its definition was coined in the early twentieth century, by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda who discovered that the component that produces this flavour was the amino acid, glutamate. Umami is a taste that is hard to pinpoint. It is this pleasant savoury taste with a deep, meaty intensity that distinguishes a gravy made from good stock, the parmesan cheese, the anchovies and mushrooms, among other things. In Japanese, Umami means delicious.
Laia Jufresa is a talented, young, Mexican writer, and Umami is her debut novel. It is a story of five families-neighbours that live in the five houses of Belldrop Mews named Bitter, Sour, Sweet, Salty and Umami. It is a book of grief and loneliness over the span of four years. The five narrators slowly unfold their stories in different times, the past mingles with the present, sweet memories of joy are intensified by the present pain of separation and sudden loss. There are many kinds of loss and each has its own kind of grief. Alfonso, an anthropologist who owns the Mews, clings to his grief reconstructing his dead wife through his writing. Ana, a bookish girl who has lost her little sister, plants a traditional milpa-garden.
Umami does not have a plot, is is structured around the narrators’ characters, their relationships with their neighbours, the banalities and the complexities of life. The constant shifting of time enables the reader to have a wider and deeper view of the people in the Mews and understand the events that have shaped their characters and lives. The translation by Sophie Hughes is remarkable.
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 turned out to be theirs. When death does you part, it’s also the end of what’s mine is yours.