Wednesday, 21 December 2016

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What We Thought: The Vegetarian, winner of the 2016 Man Booker International, is one of the strangest, most compelling books I have read for a long time.

The story revolves around a Korean woman, Yeong-hye, who decides to become a vegetarian – something still comparatively rare in that country. Her family’s extreme reaction to what they see as her subversive decision drives her progressively into a shadow world that eventually is indistinguishable from madness.

Yet we almost never privy to Yeong-hye’s point of view, seeing her, in the course of three successive narratives, from through the eyes of her austere husband, her artistic brother in law, and lastly her sister. The spare language of Deborah Smith’s translation works exceptionally well here. The lack of emotion in the husband’s narrative serves to heighten our empathy for Yeong-hye. The artistic obsession of the brother-in-law is initially more beguiling, but ultimately just as self-obsessed. It is only through the sister’s narrative that we begin to touch on what has shaped Yeong-hye.

Like Alex Pheby’s Playthings, The Vegetarian examines the psychological consequences of a living in a male dominated society. And like Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, it uses food as a metaphor for the female condition.

By the end of the novel, though, I began to suspect another underlying metaphor. Could it be that the two sisters represent the two divided halves of Korea, North and South? Could the father represent the brutal Japanese regime that governed Korea from 1910-1945? Are the husband and brother-in-law personifications of two forms of corrupt government – one more openly more cruel than that other, but both guilty, in one way or another, of raping their country?

This may be me overthinking things, as I can’t find any other reviewers who have made this interpretation.

You’ll Enjoy This If You Loved: Playthings by Alex Pheby, The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood, The Gospel According to Cane by Courttia Newland

Avoid If You Dislike: Brutal, dispassionate accounts of violence; frank exploration of mental illness

Perfect Accompaniment: Lotus leaf rice and vegetarian kimchi

Genre: Literary Fiction, Fiction in Translation

Available on Amazon

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