UMAMI

Laia Jufresa & Sophie Hughes (Translator)

It started with a drowning.

Deep in the heart of Mexico City, where five houses cluster around a sun-drenched courtyard, lives Ana, a precocious twelve-year-old who spends her days buried in Agatha Christie novels to forget the mysterious death of her little sister years earlier. Over the summer she decides to plant a milpa in her backyard, and as she digs the ground and plants her seeds, her neighbors in turn delve into their past. The ripple effects of grief, childlessness, illness and displacement saturate their stories, secrets seep out and questions emerge — Who was my wife?

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It started with a drowning.

Deep in the heart of Mexico City, where five houses cluster around a sun-drenched courtyard, lives Ana, a precocious twelve-year-old who spends her days buried in Agatha Christie novels to forget the mysterious death of her little sister years earlier. Over the summer she decides to plant a milpa in her backyard, and as she digs the ground and plants her seeds, her neighbors in turn delve into their past. The ripple effects of grief, childlessness, illness and displacement saturate their stories, secrets seep out and questions emerge — Who was my wife? Why did my Mom leave? Can I turn back the clock? And how could a girl who knew how to swim drown?

In prose that is dazzlingly inventive, funny and tender, Laia Jufresa immerses us in the troubled lives of her narrators, deftly unpicking their stories to offer a darkly comic portrait of contemporary Mexico, as whimsical as it is heart-wrenching.

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  • Oneworld
  • Hardcover
  • July 2016
  • 288 Pages
  • 9781780748917

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$16.97

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About Laia Jufresa & Sophie Hughes (Translator)

Laia JufresaLaia Jufresa was born in Mexico City, grew up in the cloud forest of Veracruz, and spent her adolescence in Paris. In 2001, she returned to Mexico City and discovered she didn’t know how to cross a street. She’s been writing fiction ever since.

She holds a BA from La Sorbonne University and is the author of the short story collection El esquinista. Her work has been featured in several anthologies as well as magazines such as Letras Libres, Pen Atlas, Words Without Borders and McSweeney’s. In 2014 Laia was invited to write chronicles for the Crossing Border Festival in The Hague, and in 2015 she was invited by the British Council Literature to be the first ever International Writer in Residence at the Hay Festival in Wales. Laia was named one of the most outstanding young writers in Mexico, as part of the 2015 project México20, the anthology of which was published in 2015. She currently lives in Cologne, Germany.

Sophie Hughes is a literary translator and editor living in Mexico City. Her translations have appeared in Asymptote, PEN Atlas, and the White Review and her reviews in the Times Literary Supplement and Literary Review.

Praise

“This book is such a gentle and sensitive deep dive into the cycles of mourning and loss out of which families are made and unmade, terrifying and uncanny, without ever losing sight of the daily banalities of hearth and home and love. Cooked to perfection, ready to serve.”—Literary Hub

“In Umami, Jufresa, an extremely talented young writer, deploys multiple narrators, giving each a chance to recount their personal histories, and the questions they’re still asking. Panoramic, affecting, and funny, these narratives entwine to weave a unique portrait of present-day Mexico.”The Millions

“The debut novel of Mexican-born Laia Jufresa is a darkly humorous tale about five neighbors living in the heart of Mexico City. Taking place during a hot rainy summer, Jufresa’s evocative portrait of contemporary Mexico lends whimsy with poignancy. Guaranteed to challenge and move you.”Vogue (UK)

 

Discussion Questions

1. The book’s action takes place in Belldrop Mews, a housing development laid out like the taste areas of a human tongue, with houses named after each kind of taste — salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami. It’s an interesting lens through which to consider the actions of the characters – does the name of their house have an effect on their actions?

2. The novel has an unusual structure – each of the four sections is told backwards in time, from the year 2004 to 2000, with one character from the story narrating a particular year each time. For example, Alfonso, who created the Belldrop Mews housing complex and lives in the Umami house, always narrates 2002. Why do you think the author decided to tell the story this way instead of a linear timeline?

3. How would UMAMI be different if it were told from the point of view of only one of the characters? Would you have liked it better? Why?

4. All of the characters are dealing with some kind of loss, both physical and emotional. The loss of a younger sister, a daughter, a wife, a mother, a father. Would you say that UMAMI is a portrait of grief viewed from many angles?

5. The book started as writing exercises in English, was written in its entirety in Spanish, and then translated from the Spanish back to English by an English-speaker. The author speaks English, Spanish, French and German fluently. Does UMAMI feel like a translated book? Why or why not?

6. With which character did you identify the most? The least? Which character was your favorite?

7. At a pivotal scene in the book, one character says, “Some damage is irreversible.” Do you think that’s something all of these characters feel? Do you feel that way about your own life?

8. Was there anything that surprised you while reading UMAMI? What and why?

9. Did you like the ending of the book? Why do you think the author chose to end it this way?

10. What do you think ends up happening to the characters in the book? Ana? Marina? Alfonso? Linda? Pina?