Kyung Ran Jo

Tongue

Winner of the 2008 Donghin Prize. Author of  TONGUE, Muhankodogne/Korea, BloomsburyUSA / world English rights, Muelenhoff/Holland, Modan/Israel, Random House/Germany, Piemme/Italy, Wydawnictwo LYNSKI , Commonwealth/Taiwan.

South Korean bestseller Jo makes her English-language debut with a novel focused on elemental experiences, primarily food and sex.

As narrator Jung Ji-won quickly informs us, the plot is anti-romantic. Instead of two characters meeting and falling in love, the story begins with the collapse of a relationship. Ji-won and her long-term architect boyfriend have split, because he has taken up with the lovely Lee Se-yeon, a former model. In an understandable funk, Ji-won closes the cooking school she’d been running out of her home and takes refuge in the sous-chef position she’d formerly had at Nove, an Italian restaurant in Seoul. Her tenure had given her several opportunities to travel to Italy, where she “learned how to pair foie gras with baked apple in Tuscany, how to make gelato in Bologna, and assembled pizza margherita in Napoli.” As Ji-won slowly begins to rehabilitate herself, food becomes her passion, her escape and, ultimately, her revenge. The separation from her lover is a messy one, however. She gets their dog, Paulie, while her boyfriend basks in the sensual delights of Se-yeon. On the other hand, Ji-won makes abundantly clear the sensual connection between food and love: “The person you can eat with is also the person you can have sex with, and the person you can have sex with is the person you can eat with. That’s why dates always start with a meal.” While Ji-won is not pleased with having caught her boyfriend in flagrante delicto, what really puts the icing on the proverbial cake is Se-yeon’s decision to teach cooking classes. Not only is Se-yeon, as Ji-won acidly notes, “the woman who couldn’t differentiate between parsley and mugwort last fall,” she’s giving those classes in the “perfect” kitchen the boyfriend originally designed for Ji-won. But chefs have subtle ways of extracting their pound of flesh. A sumptuous feast.

Blowfish

A well-respected thirty-seven year-old sculptor is in her gallery. Her exhibit is successful; the many people gathered there shower her with praise. Slipping out of the gallery, she looks at the celebrities inside, the champagne flutes sparkling like jewels under the lights, her work, her success, as if it were someone else’s party. She thinks about her past. When she didn’t think of herself as a true artist or when she was ashamed, she never had the impulse to die. As she watches her party, she feels that it is time to end her life. The next day, she receives notification that she has been selected for S City Cultural Foundation’s three-month residence program in Tokyo. Having always contemplated death, the method and place of death, she settles on the idea of doing it far away from home. She leaves for Tokyo.

He is thirty-five years old and works at the International Tower Association. One day, he sees her standing alone on the eighth floor observation deck of Tokyo Tower. She seems depressed but resolute, as if she were about to leap off the tower. She reminds him of his brother, who jumped from a window a few years ago. He realizes that he has seen her before. He remembers meeting her a year ago, at a party. During the party, she held an eraser-sized piece of clay and played with it, molding hands and faces that captured the features of the partygoers. She was mostly quiet, but she did show interest in an estate administrator. She goes into the café at another part of the tower. He approaches her but she doesn’t remember him. This is the first meeting between a man who believes he’s met his one true love and a woman who tries to push love away. 

In the dead of night, she walks into Ueno Park, which is near her apartment, carrying a light, wooden folding chair. Only someone with a strong sense of self would choose to die by hanging. Someone who makes that kind of decision looks up before doing anything further. In the dark woods, she stands under a large tree, the chair by her side. When she looks up, she sees her grandmother perched on a branch, gazing down at her. Her grandmother, whose love for her husband was one-sided, dreamed of an artist’s life but had to live as the wife of a poor fisherman in a small, isolated seaside village. A short conversation ensues between the granddaughter who is about to end her life and the grandmother who did, as two women who failed at love and as artists. She comes home, deflated, chair in hand. Her mind goes over the way her grandmother chose to die—on her own birthday, she made blowfish soup without moving the poisonous intestines and skin and killed herself in front of her family. She feels that it was a dramatic way to go, chosen by a woman who is conscious of herself, who wanted to be an artist, who truly loved a man. The next day, she goes to the largest fish market in Tokyo, the Tsukiji Fish Market. In that vast market, she finds a stall that sells blowfish. A few days later, she returns and asks the owner of the stall to teach her how to cook blowfish. During the three months she has in Tokyo, she learns how to handle blowfish and its poison. 

Her father, who left home to become a carpenter, was dogged by the fear of suicide his entire life, as were his siblings. She grew up hearing that she resembles her grandmother, and when she became an adult, struggled to fight the temptation of death. She always wondered where the temptation came from. Now, in Tokyo, she is handling blowfish to die. 

Observing her, he realizes that she’s preparing for her death. He stands by her, wanting to save her at all costs—to transform the blowfish of death into the blowfish of life. 

The novel alternates in chapters from his and her perspectives. The story moves between Seoul, Tokyo, and Yosu, the seaside village where her grandmother lived. This is a story about my grandmother, as well as a story of love that thwarts death.