A jilted lover expresses her lust, hatred, and remorse through exquisite courses of caviar, duck, and tongue.
Jung Ji-won has lost her long-term boyfriend and cooking school partner, and it takes hardly a chapter of Kyung-Ran Jo’s novel Tongue to understand why. Hopelessly obsessive over food, fantasies, and her failing relationship, Ji-won salivates over every morsel of her own self-pity, eagerly entertaining each disillusioned possibility of Souk-ju’s return.
As if the memory of his deceit were a rare slice of steak, Ji-won chews on the image of Souk-ju and his lover, Se-yeon, for chapter after chapter, unable to reel in her obsession and despair and translate them into something physical. As a result, the preliminary chapters of Tongue often feel as though they are cranking the story’s engine through analyses and musings full of stagnant metaphor.
As time passes, Ji-won regains her appetite and her careful attention to food—a blessing for this novel whose story finds its landscape inside the crust and damp foie gras, honey and homemade bread, crumbling saffron and, eventually, a tough slice of tongue. With her appetite for food comes an appetite for revenge, and the carefully frozen block of aggression toward Souk-ju begins to thaw. Ji-won finds the backbone she lacks for human relationships inside her culinary creations, expressing her lust, hatred, and remorse through courses of caviar, duck, and, finally, tongue with truffles. Similarly, the novel finds its steam in the kitchen, where sensory details paint the landscape of deceit and revenge. Each kitchen scene is embellished with intense particulars, from the rich color of meat and produce to the skin and fabric that comprise the story’s silent, abstract characters.
But Ji-won’s descriptions and musings over Souk-ju’s infidelity, however intense, remain more cerebral than emotional, as meticulously explained as if she were walking the reader through a surgery. It is as if Ji-won’s emotional landscape is only developed through the food itself, as though Jo had created two Ji-wons—Ji-won as chef and Ji-won as woman. Ji-won as chef delights as much as she despairs in ruminations of lost love, family, and food. Ji-won as woman, however, falls flat, mechanically evaluating her own feelings as if looking at herself through thick aquarium glass.
The story itself becomes a long, multi-course meal with a grand finale, a dessert of shock to end the evening. By the time the final meal is served, Ji-Won has been dragging her emotions behind her laboriously—not the building, spinning emotions we expect of a character who is at the end of her emotional rope. As readers, we are relieved to find her back in the kitchen, where Jo creates the real persona and vehicle for this story.
That said, it is perhaps the where and the who that keep Tongue interesting, far more than the actual plot, which suffers from Ji-Won’s relentless overchewing of metaphor and memory. Despite its rich drawing of scene and exhaustive culinary thread, Tongue moves slowly in a non-linear motion that can deflate its urgency. This tension, however, creates a curious movement—one that does not necessarily propel the story forward but creates a swirling motion in which each chapter becomes a loop, one more course in the meal that by itself changes little but adds to the overall experience. Perhaps this is why the novel’s ending comes as such a vivid surprise—Ji-won finally takes action, responding physically, rather than mentally, to her situation. Though Tongue can be frustratingly slow, its devastating final payload reverberates backward, rejuvenating the story’s cycles and leaving the reader in a state of satiation and relief.