Tongue by Kyung-Ran Jo

TongueTongue is the first novel by South Korean author Kyung-Ran Jo to be translated into English. The protagonist is Ji-won, a cook who’s opened up her own cooking school in the home she shares with her boyfriend, architect Seok-ju. Together they have designed her dream kitchen, where she teaches small groups to make breads and Italian food. When Seok-ju falls for a former model taking cooking lessons, he leaves Won alone with his dog Paulie to close up her kitchen and go back to work at the Italian restaurant where she was trained.

The chapters follow Won month after month through a traumatic, isolating breakup. She thinks constantly of food and Seok-ju, works long days in the restaurant taking on extra duties, and falls with Paulie into an abyss of loneliness in the home they once shared with “him.” At first her devastation seems normal, then a bit scary, then a bit sad. And after she finds out that Seok-ju has now built their dream home for Se-yeon, who’s opening a new cooking school, we see how unmoored Won really has become.

Food, taste, and sense in general are the centerpiece of the novel, and Jo gives Won a very convincing gourmandism. She knew she wanted to be a cook when, one day in college, a pheasant flew into her classroom.

What I needed now wasn’t to learn about boring historical events, but the kind of work I could do using my senses of smell, taste, touch, sight, hearing. My eyes had sliced through the pheasant’s body as I murmured to myself, You’re beautiful, but your firm flesh, if handled by knife and fire, will slide smoothly down my throat. It was the first time I’d talked to a pheasant and the first moment I understood that gourmandism wasn’t a simple sense-driven thing, but a clear and rational act. This newfound knowledge of mine whispered to me that I should choose to do something I enjoyed, to live the kind of life I’d be happy in. This awakened in me the impulse to gulp down things I’m strongly attracted to, things I like.

Seok-ju was one of those things Won gulped down, and she spends plenty of time musing on meals she’s served to him, meals she could serve to get him back. But the sexual angle on food isn’t by any means the only one. There are some highly erotic scenes and fantasies, but Won is interested in sensation more generally. Some of the best food discussions are those of her childhood, of her grandmother using a pear reduction to sweeten everything, or cooking plain, earthy meals. The importance of salt, the taste of loneliness, the close association of love and hunger, “physical symptoms that propel your life”:

If neither is satisfied, you are overwhelmed with rage. There aren’t very many things you can do to get beyond rage other than to continue eating. Me yelling, me sobbing, me holding a bag of chips all day. A simple montage of me six months ago.

The novel is set in Seoul, but Won mostly cooks Western food and makes a surprising number of Western cultural references. This is the first Korean novel I’ve read, but it felt quite homey, and to a large extent the comparisons to Haruki Murakami are apt. There is a certain way reality is tilted for Won that makes everything a bit strange, but she’s going through a dark, intimate process that could tilt anyone. I found the food writing very evocative, and the emotional ups and downs as well. Tongue was a bit dark, but I’m hoping to see more of Jo’s work translated in the future.

Thanks to the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program and Bloomsbury for an advance review copy of Tongue.