“When I open my mouth, I can choose between two languages . . . but on paper I cannot decipher either one.” So laments Rosa Antonia Cassimati, one of the narrators of “The Sweetest Fruits.” Eloquent Rosa must dictate her story to another, and in so doing, she evokes one of the novel’s central themes: the question of who gets to tell what stories.
The marvelous new novel by Monique Truong (“The Book of Salt,” “Bitter in the Mouth”), a mixture of fact and imagination, is about the author Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, but this book is actually made up of women’s voices, each of them relating their own version of the brilliant writer they loved.
Born into a stultifying and patriarchal Greek family, Rosa Cassimati falls for the foreign charm of Charles Bush Hearn, an Irish surgeon with the British Army. They marry, and in 1850, she gives birth to her son on the Grecian island of Lefkada. Rosa moves herself and young Lafcadio to his father’s native country. Her marriage can’t withstand their cultural and personal differences, though, and Rosa soon realizes that she’s on her own. Isolated and uncertain, Rosa agrees to allow her son to be raised by one of Charles’s well-heeled relations, and she returns to Greece alone, leaving behind only traces of herself in her son’s imagination. Consequently, she sets in motion Lafcadio’s search for home, identity and connection that will last his lifetime.
Rosa’s is the first of three extended first-person narratives, interlaced with excerpts from a 1906 biography by the journalist Elizabeth Bisland, which together construct a life in collage. Each voice gives an almost entirely unique accounting of the illustrious writer, as Lafcadio seemed to continually re-create himself, and, in so doing, gives each of his narrators a new subject, a new life story to imagine.
Despite his Irish father, Lafcadio finds no sanctuary in Ireland where he is bullied and beaten. He makes his way to the United States as a young man, landing in Cincinnati where he finds work at the city newspaper. He also strikes up a friendship with Alethea Foley, the cook at his boardinghouse. Alethea narrates the story of their early courtship, the home they moved into and the child they raised. She observes that while she might be illiterate, she understands the deeper currents of character and story. Lafcadio relies on her skills to guide him to the heart of his articles, deepening and drawing out their riches. Their time together is sweet yet fraught. Alethea had been born into slavery; like Lafcadio, she is trying to build a new life for herself in Cincinnati. But unlike him, she has a grasp of the forces of prejudice and the dangers they face as an interracial couple. They are eventually pulled apart, and once again, Lafcadio sets off on another unexpected journey.
Lafcadio moves to New Orleans, where he compiles a book of Creole recipes, and from there he travels through the West Indies, absorbed by its exotic beauty. Eventually, he makes his way to Japan where he assumes the name Koizumi Yakumo and begins building a new life. He marries Koizumi Setsu, daughter of a samurai, and the two become partners in literature and life.
These adventures are illuminated with lovely, painstaking details that bring to vivid life the broader currents of history. Setsu muses: “I learned that modern buildings were constructed of bricks, red as camellia blossoms, with windows paned with clear glass.” Truong’s lush style is on gorgeous display in these pages, her imagery evoking hidden emotional depths: “I close these eyes and I join you in the dream world where grief slips below the horizon, replaced by the rising moon of memory, and we are in Matsue again with the bush warbler and his song.”
While the lives, loves and adventures of Lafcadio Hearn hold center stage in this novel, these are set off by a rich brocade of social critiques — of slavery, colonization and the repression of women. With great generosity and compassion, Truong explores the difference between writing and telling stories, with the question of who gets to speak and who remains silent. Lafcadio, despite his many identities, is fundamentally heartsick, torn between nations and loves. The women he leaves behind are also heartbroken. Still, they are brave enough to share their unique stories and reveal how, like the object of literature, the object of love is altered and shaped by the one who loves.
Diana Abu-Jaber is the author of “Birds of Paradise” and “Origin.” Her most recent book is the culinary memoir “Life Without a Recipe.”
By Monique Truong
Viking. 304 pp. $26