Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 23, 2021

The Sweetest Fruits, by Monique Truong

What a pleasure it was to read this book!

The Sweetest Fruits, by Vietnamese-American author Monique Truong, is a fictionalised life of Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). Of Greek-Irish heritage, Hearn was born on the Greek island of Lefkada; was abandoned by his father and then by his mother who unwisely left him under guardianship in Ireland.  From there he was tutored in Wales and educated in France; but learned the craft of journalism and translation in the US; and subsequently in Japan became a teacher who introduced its culture and literature to the West.  As we learn from the Afterword, Truong discovered the bare bones of his life story during research for a previous book Bitter in the Mouth.  The novel had to have an authentic cornbread recipe from the South not the North, and the brief but intriguing bio that she found in an encyclopedia of food alerted her to Hearn’s La Cuisine Creole: A Collection of Culinary Recipes (1885).  As a child refugee from Vietnam, Truong is fascinated by people who choose to live in exile from country, family, language, and the physical and emotional assemblage of home so she had found the topic for her next novel and The Sweetest Fruits is the result.

A deft mixture of fact and imagination, Hearn’s story is told in the distinctive voices of three women who were crucially important in his life, punctuated by the contrasting voice of his real-life biographer Elizabeth Bisland.  The effect is not to make the reader doubt the veracity of these women but to acknowledge that people present different versions of themselves to others for all sorts of reasons, dubious or otherwise.

BEWARE: MILD SPOILERS

The first narrator is the illiterate (real-life) Rosa Antonia Cassimati, (1823-1882) dictating her story to Elesa, who is nanny to her second but (so far) only surviving child, Patricio Lafcadio Hearn.  En route to Dublin where she hopes to reunite with the father of this child, Charles Bush Hearn, Rosa has escaped the bullying and cruelty of her childhood home where she was held to blame for her mother’s premature death and destined to live out her days in a convent.  Naïve and inexperienced in the ways of men, Rosa has to learn the hard way that men like Charles care more about their military careers in far-flung places than they do about their families.

Commemorative plaque to Lafcadio Hearn, 48 Gardiner Street Lower, Dublin, Ireland. (Wikipedia)

The reader does not learn about the betrayal of Rosa’s hopes in this part of the story.  That comes later in the second narration, which is by (real-life) Alethea Foley (1853-1913) in Cincinnati.

Alethea is a 20-year-old African American woman and former slave who found work in the boarding house where Pat, as she calls him, was eking out a living as a journalist for a scandal rag.  Unburdened by language difficulties as Charles and Rosa had been, Alethea and Pat form a relationship close enough for him to share childhood memories of his disappointments in Dublin though he is always somewhat evasive about his past.  His reminiscences, however, certainly suggest that the commemorative plaque in Dublin is a distortion of Irish literary history.

Despite Ohio’s anti-miscegenation law, the couple marry, but Pat — naïve about the extent of racism at that time — is fired from his job because of this illegal marriage.  He gets better paid work with a rival paper, but the relationship founders in the wake of the shame imposed by white supremacism. Ever restless, Pat takes off for New Orleans where his career as a writer and translator began to flourish.  Alethea in this 1906 narrative is telling her story because as his lawful wife, she is suing for his estate.  Parts of this narrative conflict with what’s at Wikipedia which reinforces the way that Alethea was erased from the narrative that Hearn wished to present to the world.

Lafcadio Hearn, 1889 (Wikipedia)

The final narrator is the Koizumi Setsu (1868-1932) in Tokyo.  Once again Hearn forms a relationship with a social unequal, a domestic servant but this time one with an aristocratic past.  In this period Japan is undergoing rapid modernisation and Setsu’s family has lost its Samurai status and come down in the world.  Marriage with Hearn gives her status she did not expect to have: she becomes the wife of a renowned teacher and they have four children: Kazuo, Iwao, Kiyoshi, and Suzuko. Mindful of his own experience of being disinherited in Ireland, Hearn takes up Japanese citizenship and changes his name.  Even in Japan he dislocates his family by moving around, but he stays in Japan until his death.

The real-life Setsu wrote a memoir of her life with Hearn, but Truong depicts her as prudent rather than devious as she explains why the version of Hearn’s life sent to Elizabeth Bisland is a compromised version of the truth.  It was important for his reputation, for example, that he maintained his profile as a Japanese aficionado, but as Alethea had found before Setsu, he had a well-concealed preference for cuisines other than the ones he was promoting.  But more significantly, Setsu tells us that Hearn’s enthusiasm for the old Japan was in conflict with its ambitions to modernise.  It was also insulting to the communities whose ‘quaint’ ways he wanted to immortalise and she, as translator, had to rescue him from hostilities without offending his masculine and Western sense of superiority.

What becomes clear as these narratives draw together is that Hearn was a complex man.  He, like most of the other male characters, is master of his own destiny at the expense of the women in his life and was downright deceitful in some matters.  But in telling the story of his women from their point-of-view the reader has to acknowledge his good qualities and can sense his charm.  Despite his manifest flaws, The Sweetest Fruits would be a much less interesting book if he were villainised.

Highly recommended.

*Hearn’s translations from the French are listed at Wikipedia:  they include works by  Théophile Gautier;  Anatole France;  Gustave Flaubert; Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant.

Image credits:

Commemorative plaque to Lafcadio Hearn, by Miles-e-piles – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46190601

Photo of Hearn by Frederick Gutekunst – http://www.lib.u-toyama.ac.jp/chuo/hearnlib.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11587304

Author: Monique Truong
Title: The Sweetest Fruits
Cover design by Ten Deer Sigh with artwork by Yuko Shimizu
Publisher: Upswell Publishing, 2021, first published 2019
ISBN: 9780645076325, pbk., 310 pages
Source: Personal subscription to Upswell Publishing

 


Responses

  1. I have this one on my TBR pile, Lisa (I’m also an Upswell subscriber), so I didn’t read beyond your warning. It sounds wonderful.

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    • I hope I’ve done it justice, it’s such an interesting exploration of truth…

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  2. I knew a little about Hearn, so was interested to hear this account of his life and…er, loves.

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    • That’s interesting, how did you come to know about him?

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      • I got interested in Japanese art and poetry when i was an undergraduate, and his were some of the first translations i read. Picked up a bit about his life here and there later.

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  3. […] At the end of a long day I need The Sweetest Fruits, by Monique Truong […]

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  4. Sounds intriguing.

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  5. I must get and read this. I have written about Lafcadio Hearn a few times, including anOn the literary road post (when we visited a house museum in Matsue, where he lived) and a review of an LOA story. I also have his travel book about Japan on my kindle. An interesting man.

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