Review: The Butcher’s Wife and Other Stories – Li Ang

butcher's wife

Trigger warning: rape, abuse, violence. Also spoilers.

The Butcher’s Wife – I was excited about this story because I read the foreword, which talked about how it was inspired by a Shanghai news story wherein a woman murdered her husband to escape abuse. Li Ang wanted to write about this story from a feminist perspective because these stories are usually explained away by the misogynistic idea that women only murder their husbands in order to participate in extramarital affairs, and never due to other reasons. I was looking forward to reading from the woman’s perspective about how she gathered up the courage to kill her husband, and all that she was thinking before she decided to take action. Instead, the story detailed the emotional, financial, physical and sexual abuse suffered by the main character, and I read about her powerlessness and disassociation from her pain and suffering, and finally from herself, until she committed a crime in a surreal state, starving and driven to madness. I was troubled and angered by the internalized misogyny exhibited by the village woman who gossiped about her sexual life and repeated a lot of rape apologists’ reasoning. Ultimately, this was not an enjoyable read, but it was well-written, in that it showed a truthful depiction of abuse and its effects. This is less a rallying cry for a feminists and more a reminder of why feminism matters in the first place.

Compelling. Worth re-reading after a rest (months? year?). Depicts a firsthand perspective of domestic abuse and doesn’t paint the abuser as a one-dimensional villain. Huge trigger warning: rape, abuse, violence – Li Ang doesn’t hold much back.

Flower Season – Daydreaming girl plays truant and decides to buy a tiny tree from a florist. Long description of florist taking her on a bike ride far away. She starts off feeling glamorous, then alternates between being excited and being frightened. She is extremely anxious that the florist has bad intentions for her (rape? murder?), and then is disappointed, but relieved that nothing happens in the end. She flees anyway when she receives the tree, still feeling afraid.

I read this as a result of what happens to a girl’s imagination after being warned about men and the horrible things that men can do. Although the warnings are meant to ensure safety, they aren’t failsafe and they result in a hypervigilance which is sometimes warranted and sometimes not warranted. A girl who has not experienced sexual assault yet has been taught about the importance of being appealing to men may find it both comforting and concerning that she has not caught the attention (good intentioned or bad intentioned) of a strange man. This felt confusing, which makes sense from the character’s perspective. I found myself annoyed with the girl’s naivete, but also remembering my high school self and how I held in confusing tension a fear of bad boys/men with the desire to be appealing to boys.

Less compelling than The Butcher’s Wife, but still engaging. I would not re-read this, because other than the fears and fantasies in the girl’s head, nothing is really happening plot-wise. This is not such a traumatic read, but may leave you with an icky feeling. People who were never socialized as girls/women may have a hard time relating to this story.

Wedding Ritual – Like The Butcher’s Wife and Flower Season, this story happens to the character, passively. The character does have a role and action, in that he spends most of his time searching for Auntie Cai and dragging along a basket for Auntie Cai, but he spends just as much if not more time thinking about his love (who jilted him for a motorcycle and has fantastic breasts, the latter of which he fixates on) and about how he hates the heat. Finally he gets married and doesn’t even know it. I felt just as confused as he was. Yet another reminder that patriarchy is simultaneously a norm and a confusing way that society is structured, and that much of what enforces patriarchy just happens to people. In short, patriarchy is cultural and systemic, and it, like the heavy heat and the heaviness of the basket, is oppressive. I get the feeling that the main character is just a boy. It frightens me to think about this fact in combination with the previous two stories, because I am reminded that the boys who are thrust into patriarchal expectations become the abusers later. Maybe if they were never handed those expectations and were allowed what they wanted in the first place, they wouldn’t be getting sick from gorging themselves on the violence of power in the first place.

As engaging as Flower Season, but more confusing. May leave you with a confused and slightly annoyed feeling.

Curvaceous Dolls – Boobs, boobs, boobs, all the boobs. This woman really wants to touch boobs and be with a woman, but she’s married to a man, and she finds his hairiness and flat chest more and more repulsive and disappointing each day. She experiences orgasms, just thinking about touching the curves of dolls she had as a child. Her repressed desires to be with a woman manifest themselves in longing for her childhood dolls, for returning to her home where she could caress the dolls in secret, and finally in wanting a child to suckle her breasts. I was disappointed and confused by how in the end, she wanted a child, because her desire for a child wasn’t sexual. Again, this seems to be Li Ang being clever about describing the way that the character transferred her unacceptable, unattainable desires into acceptable, attainable ones. Is the psychological term for this transference, or something else? Anyone who can tell me gets 10 brownie points.

Compelling, troubling, and sad, but not too terribly troubling and sad (nothing is as troubling and sad as The Butcher’s Wife). You share the excitement that the character feels when she discovers how much pleasure she derives from thinking about curves and breasts. You also share the estrangement and shame she feels when her husband mocks her. Her husband is both condescending and sympathetic to her concerns, but he lacks empathy because he can’t feel what she does and she can’t bring herself to completely express her feelings. Would read again, if only to figure out the symbolism of the green eyes and tail that she keeps envisioning (I have no clue).

Test of Love – Girl has crush on dude. Dude thinks she’s too immature and too cultured, marries someone more domestic and simple. Sees girl later and girl is elegant and hot and also works in social welfare (yasss). Dude is still married, and gets together with girl to catch up. Dude asks girl to retell story about different characters, which was her test of how people perceive love or what people prioritize in life. Dude observes girl has changed a lot. He goes home to his wife, who tells him that she’s pregnant. Dude gets freaked out because people change a lot and how can he raise a child in an environment where people and things change so quickly?

Ummm. Existential, much? Interesting story. Not sure that I totally understand it. I wonder if it’s a metaphor for modernization and globalization, especially given the next story.

A Love Letter Never Sent – Girl has crush on scholarly dude who had gone to America to study comparative literature and came back to Taiwan to lecture. This love letter is to him. She follows him to lectures and has intense crush on him. He encourages people (her included) to create their own nativist art and literature. She doesn’t do it, but still crushes hard. She gets distraught and sick when he leaves the office where she works. She hears that dude has gotten arrested. One day she goes into the office and sees his wife and stops crushing so hard (still crushes, but not so hard). Later she gets married to another dude. She finally starts writing and doing real journalism. Her husband works to export goods from Taiwan to Africa. They find out they have nothing in common to talk about. She finds out that her husband has had an affair, but he says it means nothing. She decides, against the advice of her family and friends, to separate, disillusioned by the ideal of marriage. She (still married) becomes interested in another dude (married), who looks and acts like scholarly dude. She says she doesn’t regret crushing on scholarly dude, and she’s over him.

Gahhhhhhh what is this. I’m annoyed that she was so schoolgirl crushy (my own internalized misogyny rearing its ugly head, probably), but find it compelling that later she does journalistic work and takes on scholar-dude’s challenge to create nativist writing. Is this about how foreign ideas can open up possibilities previously unconsidered, and how these ideas can threaten existing societal norms and institutions, but liberate a person to use their own agency to make decisions? I don’t know.

Okay I’m tired and going to be bed. GOOD NIGHT and you’re welcome.

Also, what a badass: (link) About Li Ang.

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