Notes on Diversity:
Diversity is the wrong word here1; this is a Taiwanese book written for a Taiwanese audience populated by Taiwanese people. It’s authentic. If you’re looking to read outside of Western authors, and you’re looking for something particularly dark and excruciatingly feminist, then check this out.
There are no queer characters, but Western notions of queerness may not fully apply here, so I may well have missed some subtext. There are characters who deal with physical disabilities–Auntie Ah-Wang hobbling to and fro on her bound feet is a particularly striking example.
This book deals, explicitly and vividly, with sexual and physical abuse. It is not an easy book to read. Much of the plot and much of the text is devoted to detailing how Lin Shi, the main character, tries and fails to cope with her husband’s continued abuse.
Li Ang’s The Butcher’s Wife is harrowing. And feminist. And brilliant.
I first read this book in college. I worked at the library circulation desk; someone turned it in and I picked it up and read it. I didn’t know anything about it. I read it, and it was horrible and fascinating and etched itself into my brain. I’ve thought about it off and on in the years since and recently ordered a copy and reread it. It definitely held up to the reread.
The Butcher’s Wife is about a woman, Lin Shi, in a small village in Taiwan who is sent off to marry a pig butcher by her uncle, Chen Jiangshui. Right from the start, she’s traded like cattle, treated like goods: ownership of herself, her fate, her body is clearly not hers. Her husband is a brutal man; whether he is drawn to the slaughterhouse day in and day out because of his inherent brutality or whether his brutality is a response to his murderous line of work. In either case, his brutality remains a fact. He rapes Lin Shi. He beats her. He psychologically and emotionally berates her. He does these things, it seems, simply because she’s there. Simply because she exists, and because she now belongs to him.
The structure of the book is such that we know how the story ends before it even begins. In my copy, Pig-Butcher Chen’s fate is revealed in the Author’s Preface. If you skip that, then it’s revealed on the very first page of the book, in a fictitious news report2. Lin Shi kills Chen Jianshui. This isn’t a spoiler; this is the conceit of the book. The book isn’t about what will happen to Lin Shi. We go in knowing. The book is about why she does it. And in that narrative design, Li Ang gives Lin Shi and immense amount of power and agency within the story.
This is in keeping with the book’s overall themes of control and power. The book zeroes in on women, their interiority, how they relate to or don’t relate to each other. There are occasional scenes from the perspective of Lin Shi’s husband, but even those are mostly his ruminations about the women in his life, either Lin Shi or the prostitutes he frequents3. Lin Shi spends a lot of time alone, trying to fill the utterly boring hours before her terrifying husband come home. Every day, she goes out to do laundry, and through that chore we come to understand her relationship to and her place among the village’s other women. It’s a complex and shifting situation that Lin Shi never quite successfully navigates.
What I am left with most, though, is the way The Butcher’s Wife spells out how utterly suffocating and unrelenting patriarchal control is/can be. Lin Shi endures and endures and endures until she can’t anymore. And she snaps; she kills her husband. She metes out this great and terrible and vicious act–this irreperable and irretreivable act–that is hers and hers alone. Or so you would think. But even that is stripped from her:
Chen Lin Shi’s confession defies all reason and logic, for, since ancient times, a murder of this sort has always been the result of an adulterous affair.
On the very first page of the book we have proof that Lin Shi’s act has been drastically rewritten in the social narrative of the village. She didn’t really do it on her own. she must have been sleeping with another man. She must have killed her husband at his behest. That’s how it always is. That’s how women are. Even if they kill you, it’s not really them killing you–it’s really the other man wielding them as a weapon against you.
Even in her own confession, Lin Shi is silenced. In a book absolutely chock-full of horror, this is one of the most horrifying elements to me.
(If you’d like to check out more about this book, I highly recommend this review on Goodreads.)
1I’ve got a post brewing about diversity and the way this term is loaded. Watch this post if that’s a topic that interests you.
2Li Ang, in her Author’s Preface, makes clear that the news report, though fictitious, has roots in actual reported cases in mainland China. Another observation: the structure of this book, along with its length and use of diegetic extra-textual elements like the fake news clipping (here’s the ending! here’s how it happened from several points of view!) reminded me quite a bit of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd on this reread. Which was not a comparison I was expecting to draw. So, now I want to go reread Billy Budd.
3One of the most interesting parts of the book, to me, was the contrast between Chen Jiangshui’s relationship to Lin Shi–a woman he doesn’t know at all and doesn’t care to know, who he treats solely as an object– and his relationship to his particular favorite whore, Golden Flower. With her, he is companionable, almost sweet. They know each other as people. Is this because their relationship is still transactional? It’s unclear, but it’s certainly different than how he treats Lin Shi.
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