The Vegetarian by Han Kang- Book Review

I was attracted to the title of this book, that’s how I pick my books, that and the length and it’s been working out quite well for me.  I read the first page and liked it.

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way…However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there were no reason for the two of us not to get married.

And I’ve been finding booked with Asian influences quite appealing recently.  David Mitchell is one of my favourite authors and his books usually have a Japanese character or are set in Japan, he lived there for a few years and has a Japanese wife. And I read The Long Road To The Deep North which takes place in a Japanese POW camp (which game an interesting, if not that pleasant, introduction to certain aspects of Japanese and Korean culture).

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Han Kang is not an author I’d heard of before, she lives in Seoul and the book was translated by Deborah Smith from Korean to English.  I guess that you have to assume the translator has faithfully translated the prose but I do wonder if anything was lost in translation.

For the most part I felt this book could have been set in any country, but that was probably influence by the perfect English in which it it written.  But the role of women in Korean society was always set to be something of a theme.

After Yeong-Hye becomes a vegetarian she meets horrified and outraged responses from her husband and family.  She is eating so little that she loses a lot of weight, and begins walking around topless finding bras too constrictive, she sleeps very little and no longer has sex with her husband finding the smell of meat on him too repulsive.  Suffering through his sexual deprivation, her husband comes home drunk and rapes her:

I grabbed hold of my wife and pushed her to the floor.  Pinning down her struggling arms and tugging off her trousers , I became unexpectedly aroused.

It’s pretty yucky, but isn’t really made a big deal in the book.  And you get the feeling that Yeong-hye was fairly submissive to her husband before that anyway.  A meal with her parents results in her father trying to force feed her meat and hitting her, leading to her attempting to kill herself.

Your father went too far, you know.  How can he hit his daughter in front of her husband?  Has he always been like this?

After which it all went crazy!  As Yeong-hye was tormented by dreams in which she sees a bloody face, her brother -in-law becomes obsessed with her.  He sketches images of a man and a woman covered in flowers having sex and attempts to recreate them with Yeong-hye and a friend.  The friend can’t go through with it but her brother in law can, and does.

He fixed the camcorder to the tripod and adjusted the height.   Once he’s arranged it so the her prone body filled the frame exactly, he got out his paints, his palette and brushes.  He decided to film himself painting her.

The book is weird, and gets weirder.  What happens to Yeong-hye never really gets explained but in the end she refuses to eat anything and her sister In-hye exhausts herself caring for her, as well as her own son (her marriage not really lasting after her husband shagged her sister).  By the end of the book In-hye is having the same kinds of dreams and melancholia that Yeong-hye had in the beginning and we’re left wondering if the story will repeat.

Probably not my favourite book, to be honest, I was kind of hoping it was about a plucky vegetarian trying to making it in a meat-eaters world.  But it was different, and interesting, and weird which is what I like.