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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Jo Kyung-ran

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To purchase Tongue

Title: Tongue
Author: Jo Kyung-ran
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 212 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: Tongue - US
Tongue - UK
Tongue - Canada
  • Korean title: 혀
  • Translated by Chi-Young Kim

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Our Assessment:

B- : not quite convincing food/cooking-centered novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/8/2009 Alison McCulloch

  From the Reviews:
  • "Food is a well-traveled literary metaphor, but here, in a translation by Chi-Young Kim, Jo does marvelous and disturbing things with it, serving up dishes rich with a variety of feelings." - Alison McCulloch, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Tongue is narrated by Jeong Ji-won, a thirty-three-year-old Korean woman whose longtime boyfriend, Seok-ju, leaves her. While she was together with him she opened a very successful small cooking school, but in the wake of the break-up she abandons that and returns to Nove, the Italian restaurant where she started out. Seok-ju left her for a beautiful former model, Se-yeon -- who had taken classes with Ji-won.
       Ji-won has an alcoholic uncle whom she visits at the facility where he is staying, and a journalist friend named Mun-ju, but it's the dog she and Seok-ju had, Paulie, that remains her strongest hold in these hard times. More than with any being, however, she tries to gain hold again through food and cooking. Tongue describes her uneven journey of trying to come to terms with what has happened.
       It does not go particularly well.
       The food-centered focus has its appeal, but turns out to be rather confusing. The fact that she works at an Italian restaurant, making Italian food, in Korea is already somewhat disorienting, but it's her preposterous pronouncements that are really problematic:

     If loneliness or sadness or happiness could be expressed through food, loneliness would be basil. It's not good for your stomach, dims your eyes, and turns your mind murky. If you pound basil and place a stone over it, scorpions swarm toward it.
       (Anyone out there have these experiences with basil ?)
A copper stew pot has a thick bottom and a long, sturdy handle, and any ingredient you put in will instantly lose shape and melt.
       (Where can one get one of these magical instantly-food-melting stew pots ?)
       Or, more generally:
It's my fate to love and cook. Loving and cooking are different but also the same.
       Granted, Ji-won has a lot on her mind -- mainly having to do with love and cooking -- but after a while (well, very quickly) such pseudo-profundity gets very, very tired. And it doesn't get either her or the story anywhere, either.
       There is some appeal to some of the cooking and food descriptions, especially behind the scenes in the restaurant, and some of her reminiscences add a bit of heft to her story, but for the most part this is an uneven jumble that the author tries way too hard (and unnaturally) to tie to food. There are quite a few decent scenes, especially of Ji-won's interaction with others, like her uncle and her boss, Chef, but Jo flails around far too much and long in trying to make a story out of all this.
       Tongue does tell a specific story, however, of how jilted lover Ji-won deals with her break-up. She seems to do okay for a while, immersing herself in her cooking -- and Jo does a decent job of describing Ji-won's own shifting relationship to food as she tries to get back on her feet --, but then she asks Seok-ju to look after Paulie for a few days, and when that doesn't work out she snaps -- in predictable culinary fashion. It makes for a bizarre and disconcerting conclusion, but beyond the admittedly effective shock effect Jo doesn't do that particularly well either.
       Food-centered fiction has to go beyond reveling in the sensual, but one of the weaknesses of Tongue is that Ji-won's food-talk simply isn't that convincing, on either the sensual or technical level. Jo gets some of the tastes and textures right, but she tries way too hard most of the time with what she puts in Ji-won's mouth; Tongue has the feel of a book by an author who would like to convey a fascination with something (food) but knows too little about it herself -- and has researched the topic, rather than really immersing herself in it. If the rest of the story, building up to the dramatic final act, were stronger that might help redeem some of these flaws, but it is messier than need be, Jo a better anecdote-teller than novelist, and too unfocussed for the denouement to have as much power as it should.
       There are some decent morsels to Tongue, but the meal as a whole is rather baffling -- a vast mix of unmatched, overseasoned, incorrectly cooked dishes. An editor would have sent it back into the kitchen.

- M.A.Orthofer, 10 June 2009

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Tongue: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Korean literature

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About the Author:

       South Korean author Jo Kyung-ran (조경란) was born in 1969.

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© 2009 the complete review

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