Book of the week: The Vegetarian by Han Kang
This bizarre South Korean novel won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize
CliffsNotes: This peculiar South Korean novel edged out Elena Ferrante’s The Story Of The Lost Child and Orhan Pamuk’s A Strangeness In My Mind to win this year’s Man Booker International Prize; now awarded to a single novel and not an entire body of work. The story hinges on an uninspiring premise: Yeong-hye, a plain woman and pliant wife, decides to turn vegetarian. But the repercussions of this sudden abstinence, prompted by a violent nightmare, are oddly devastating. Yeong-hye’s decision shreds her marriage and shames her family, and they begin to employ violent interventions and force-feeding to end the madness. Meanwhile, Yeong-hye is convinced she’s turning into a tree. This short, perplexing novel evokes unlikely questions on identity, societal norms and mental illness.
Get a taste: The Vegetarian is told in three parts, and by three narrators: Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister. We first meet the insipid protagonist through the eyes of her husband:
Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the ﬁrst time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know. As she came up to the table where I was waiting, I couldn’t help but notice her shoes – the plainest black shoes imaginable. And that walk of hers – neither fast nor slow, striding nor mincing.
However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married. The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially reﬁned, suited me down to the ground. There was no need to affect intellectual leanings in order to win her over, or to worry that she might be comparing me to the preening men who pose in fashion catalogues, and she didn’t get worked up if I happened to be late for one of our meetings. The paunch that started appearing in my mid-twenties, my skinny legs and forearms that steadfastly refused to bulk up in spite of my best efforts, the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis – I could rest assured that I wouldn’t have to fret about such things on her account.
Author 101: The award-winning South Korean author teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. The Vegetarian is her first novel to be published in English, followed by Human Acts, which tells the story of a young student searching for his friend’s dead body during the 1980 Gwangju uprising.
Fun fact: Deborah Smith, the novel’s translator, only began to study Korean about six years ago. The Vegetarian’s English print-run has also been attributed to Smith, who pitched the book to a British publisher. The £50,000 prize amount for the Man Booker International prize will be split between Kang and Smith.
Similar reads: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka; Beauty Is A Wound by Eka Kurniawan
The Vegetarian (Portobello Books) is out now