Umami is a novel set in Mexico City that follows the residents of five houses (named after the flavours sour, salty, sweet, bitter and umami) all of whom are experiencing some form of loss or grief. The story has five narrators, there is twelve-year-old Ana trying to make sense of the death of her little sister, Luz; Marina, an artist recovering from anorexia who creates colours to describe emotions; Alfonso, an anthropologist mourning the death of his vivacious wife, Noelia (who was in life grieving her own childlessness); Pina, Ana’s friend and neighbour, trying to understand her mother’s unexplained departure from the family, and finally, Luz, describing the events leading up to her death.
Umami has an unusual and non-linear structure, each chapter focuses on one character during a particular year starting with Ana in 2004, switching to Marina in 2003, then Alfonso in 2002, Luz in 2001 and Pina in 2000, before returning to Ana and working backwards again. The time and character shifts can seem disorientating at first but it allows the story to unfurl gradually and shows how seemingly ordinary interactions between the characters can take on greater meaning and significance once the consequences are fully revealed.
Umami is a short novel that tackles some big themes such as loss, grief and identity. As Ana and Pina take their first awkward steps towards adolescence, Alfonso is adjusting to his own transition from husband to widower and also describes Noelia’s struggle with her own identity as a wife and respected cardiologist but “only a daughter” because of her childlessness, while Marina attempts to overcome anorexia, an abusive childhood and work out who she is.
The sense of loss that permeates through the novel isn’t the tidal waves of sorrow, anger and shock that wash over us when grief is fresh, but the dull ache of missing someone that never really goes away no matter how many years pass, and of slowly trying to find a new purpose in life.
The slow and thoughtful pace of Umami has been a pleasant contrast to the busy-ness at work and home in my own life over the last few weeks, and Umami is a poignant but hopeful novel that lingers long after the story ends.