“Tongue” is Kyung Ran Jo’s first novel to be translated into English, but she’s the author of four short story collections, another novel and a collection of essays. The scuttlebutt on the book is that the author was a judge of a writing contest. A novella with similar writing and the same story was submitted by a woman, Ju Yi-ran, who claims that it was stolen from her for the writing of Tongue. She’s now published the novella, in its own right, with a cover that says something like “the book that Jo stole from”.
For me, the novel would have been much better as a novella: a barer plot, the interesting descriptions of food and cooking and eating to move it along, and the more dramatic incidents not dwelled upon. More of a modern folktale than a novel, and where individual chapters don’t feel as weak.
I can see the book’s appeal. It’s a book for foodies, and the descriptions of a young woman chef, the restaurant she works in, and the dishes she creates and cooks, are fantastic. It’s interwoven with folkloric anecdotes – Mitterand’s taste for the endangered ortolan, Roman women who baked cakes in the shapes of their intimate parts, how to smuggle foie gras. And yet, it’s a fine line between poetry and nonsense: “Love shatters with the rumbling of thunder, but thunder causes truffles to grow”; “the taste of love encompasses the wilted, the overly ripened, the rotten, and the bitter.” I think it will really depend on the reader how much they love the style and language of these food-related passages.
I had problems with both the narrator and the plot. The book is basically a gothic horror story, so I shouldn’t demand realism from it. But it was hard for me to become emotionally involved. At the same time, I DO find some fairy tales emotional, even though they are fantastical. At some deep level, they make sense to me.
But this story doesn’t make sense to me at all. Is it cultural? Gender-related? I’m not sure. The narrator, told over and again, that her relationship is over by her ex-partner, still wants to be with him. He sounds like an arse. There’s no compelling reason for her to love him. At this stage in my life, I don’t find unrequitted love romantic. I understand the pain of break-up, and the pull of inappropriate relationships, but a whole book with no emotional progress or growth? Nope.
Meanwhile, when she first catches him in bed with his new lover, instead of confronting them, she stays silently by the door, watching and then describing to us the scene in full detail. This seemed ridiculous to me. The woman who he leaves her for forces the narrator to be their personal chef at the restaurant (and yet we only read of this about to happen, but none of the action or outcome). Then the same woman kills her partner’s dog with a frying pan. The narrator’s supposed best friend does a special feature on the ex and his partner in her magazine. Every possible betrayal, every possible cruelty is crammed into this story. Earlier in the book, it is recounted that the narrator’s uncle wife commits suicide by hanging herself, but not before covering her naked body with oil. Does that image impress or appeal to anyone?
I guess that not being a fan of the horror genre, this book wasn’t for me, but I picked it up because of my love of food. But chapter after chapter of cruelty, misery and pain… the “shocking” ending just felt distasteful to me… and gave me the feeling that the whole book had been constructed to lead up to it. A disappointing read… and literary feed.