Author: Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)
Publisher: Portobello Books
Sinister, surreal, beguiling—that’s how I would describe this fantastic novel from South Korean author Han Kang. First published in South Korea in 2007, the novel was translated to English by Deborah Smith in 2015. The Vegetarian is currently on the shortlist for the Man Booker International Prize (2016), an award given for foreign fiction.
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What I thought would be an interesting look at a woman changing her diet turned out to be so much more, consisting of multiple layers of dreams and twisted reality. Yeong-hye lives with her husband, Mr Cheong, in an apartment in Seoul. Prompted by bizarre and bloody dreams Yeong-hye gives up eating or cooking meat, much to her jerk husband’s annoyance. It turns out that vegetarianism isn’t very common in South Korea, especially not for any moral standpoint, and Yeong-hye is treated by those around her with bemused fascination and concern. But this isn’t just a simple case of not wanting to eat meat—Yeong-hye’s mental state seems to be spiralling downward, culminating in a disastrous family visit. From there the story only gets stranger, and more compelling.
The novel is split into three parts, told from the perspectives of Yeong-hye’s husband, her sister’s husband, and finally her sister. We are given little insight into Yeong-hye’s mind, just a few snatches of the dreams which haunt her, and the brief conversations which her family are able to coax out of her as she retreats further and further from the ordinary world. Her sister’s husband, a wayward artist, finds himself drawn to her with disastrous and unsettling consequences.
The novel deals with childhood abuse, sexual abuse, and eating disorders—so be warned if these are topics that you’re sensitive to. Ultimately this is a story of mental illness, with supernatural overtones, which held me firmly in its grip from start to finish.