Author: Kang Han
Publication Date: 2016 (2007)
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Source: Bought Copy
Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more 'plant-like' existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye's decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister's husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming - impossibly, ecstatically - a tree.
Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.
The Vegetarian by Kang Han is a book I had seen recommend, so when I spotted it on the shelf during my local bookstore's moving sale, I grabbed a copy. It's one of those books that is hard to describe, because reading it will be a very personal experience, and different readers will probably focus on different aspects of the story. At its heart, though, it is a study of mental health and the way family members react to someone experiencing mental health problems, as well as a look at eroticism and the female body. The book is split into three sections, each with a different POV, and none of those are the main character, Yeong-hye, so apart from a few dream-like entrances into her mind, we spend most of the story seeing her through the eyes of others. The translation feels well done to me; however, I would note that Korean cultural norms play a large part in the story, so certain scenes may not make complete sense to readers unfamiliar with Korean culture. Having some knowledge of South Korea society, even just from watching K-dramas, would help with understanding some of the characters' actions and concerns. This is a very visceral story and some readers may find certain parts disturbing, but overall I thought this was a thought-provoking and fascinating read and I will definitely pick up other books by Kang Han in the future. For me, it's a 4.5-star read.