I often find it tricky to review memoirs and personal essay collections. It’s embarrassing, almost, to judge what you know is someone else’s personal experience and not feel like you’re either being too cruel or too soft. I didn’t know Michelle Zauner or her music — she records under the name Japanese Breakfast — before I read this memoir. My friend was a fan, and told me about theThe New Yorker essay that inspired the book and served as its first chapter, but I went in woefully ignorant, half assuming this would be a companion piece to an album that I wouldn’t fully grasp. What I came away with was one of my favourite reads of the year, and a vivid example of what a great memoir looks like, how it works, how it feels.
The premise of the book is painfully simple — Zauner navigates the grief of losing her mother, the complicated, profound relationship they shared, and the inextricable way it is tied to Zauner’s own sense of identity as a Korean American. Structurally, each chapter functions almost like a mini-essay in itself, though they are generally chronological and interlinked. What’s immediately striking about Zauner’s voice is the easy frankness of it. There are no belabored attempts to ‘explain’ what she’s feeling. The honesty with which she delivers her experiences is enough, and it inspires the kind of pathos that means you don’t just feel for her but with her. She isn’t afraid to bring you all the way up close to the often painfully fraught relationships she has with her parents, her humorous but heavy self-assessments, the cultural confusion surrounding her own identity. The unapologetic, unpretentious honesty she uses cuts right to the quick. Zauner exquisitely renders her relationship with her mother. I could see my relationship with my own mother in there; I think any child of an immigrant parent, any daughter of a mother, will be able to do the same. She implicitly forces the same kind of honesty in you; it’s hard not to read about her parsing through her own relationship with her mother or her culture or her art and feel moved to do the same yourself.
The vehicle for much of Zauner’s relaying of her relationships is food: from the dishes she and her mother would share in restaurants to the aisles of the titular H-Mart, food is how Zauner navigates memory, transcends language, demonstrates bonds. Food is a powerful tool. It’s ability to invoke sensorial experience, to ground you immediately in the how-and-now of a scene, is unparalleled. It can transform reading into a near-tangible experience. But I’m often wary when I see it used as a major element — albeit typically in fiction — because it can have a tendency to wrest control of the whole story. People who choose to write about food typically love food, and often get so swept up in that love they end up losing sight of the story in their quest to play out elaborate culinary fantasies and sense memories on the page. The food eats the epicures. Zauner doesn’t just avoid this trap — she conquers it.
She understands the relationship between food and home and love and culture intimately and knows exactly how to convey it. Her book doesn’t become a vehicle for food porn; food is a vehicle for her own story. It becomes a touchstone, an immediate point of access where you can almost taste her food, and with it, her grief. I’m not being facetious when I say this book frequently had my mouth and my eyes watering simultaneously.
It feels almost pointless to write a review of this book, because what is immediately clear is that there is no one better placed to tell Zauner’s story than Zauner is — not just because it is her own experience, but because she is a uniquely capable writer. I can try to explain how good it is and why, but frankly, nothing will be able to convey that as well as reading Zauner’s writing. This book instantly gets under your skin and stays there, and what an honour it is to be a home for it.
I received digital copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Crying in H-Mart releases April 20th.