★★★★☆ – 4/5
So I picked up Han Kang’s The vegetarian in Waterstone’s a while back, swayed by a convincing sales person, the intriguing cover (couldn’t help but notice it, sorry!) and Man Booker status with expectations optimistically elevated; they were well met.
Firstly, this is not a fantasy, a charming YA read or an uplifting meta-narrative that will realign your purpose; it’s something all together more raw, and will not be to every reader’s taste. It features some graphic descriptions, expletives and themes completely and utterly unsuitable for young readers. If this doesn’t phase you there’s a good chance there’s something to gain from reading this bizarre and captivating novel.
The story is told in three parts, each from a different viewpoint. Broadly it tells the story of Yeong-hye, a woman who (in the words of her own husband) is “completely unremarkable”. She, in the first of three ‘chapters’ has a dream which causes in her a disgust and abhorrence towards meat – she declares herself a vegetarian and expels all meat products from her home. This causes disruption to her family and outrage to her father and thus her decline into a kind of madness begins.
The first chapter is told from the perspective of her then husband as her decline begins. The second is told through the eyes of her brother-in-law, a video artist whose relationship with her explores her passivity and his conflict between acting inherent desire and keeping hold of this image of ‘normal’ life.
Yeong-hye’s sister, In-hye, seems to be torn between the accountable and selfish sides of her own self; a conflict we are implicitly told is down to her duties as a mother and one Yeong-hye doesn’t have to face. In-hye is the focus of the third chapter and documents the final third of the novel.
The flawless beauty of language throughout is a testament, no doubt, to the original writer but also to the translator (Deborah Smith) whose interpretation of character tone and shift of mood between these three passages only serves to lift an already beautifully written and haunting read without smothering the voice of the narrative. Some passages I finished but couldn’t immediately let go of, I had to go over them again purely to appreciate their composition.
“The sunlight that came splintering through the wide window, dissolving into grains of sand, and the beauty of that body which, though this was not visible to the eye, was also ceaselessly splintering…” -Han Kang, The Vegetarian
And, indeed, the lives of these characters do splinter, beyond their own control under the constraints of structures within society that promote control over impulse, silence over outrage and detachment over passion. It critiques these structures in a way that reaches beyond the warnings of dystopian narratives and places them in the now as real problems for real people.
It’s visceral, provocative, fascinating and will be a book that lingers with you when you close its final page. You may, like I was, be left wondering “Why, is it such a bad thing to die?”
I read The Vegetarian at the same time as two avid readers I was in contact with through the #bookstagram hashtag on Instagram; for those of you interested in a wider response (theirs are unique to mine and may sway yours) links to their accounts are as follows:
Have you read The Vegetarian yet? What did you think? – were you utterly repulsed? Let me know in the comments below!
Thanks for reading!