‘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.’ Thus starts the most unusual book I’ve read in a while, and stranger it gets. The Vegetarian by South Korean author Han Kang, is the tragic story of Yeong-hye, told by her husband, the cold Mr Cheong, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful, manipulative artist and her selfless sister, In-hye.
The ever-subservient Yeong-hye surprises everyone by declaring that she’s stopped eating meat. Food, clearly pivotal to her family and South-Korean culture, is not to be messed with, and no one accepts her decision. Her father even tries to physically force her to eat a piece of pork at a family dinner, exposing himself as the violent thug he is. Her husband couldn’t care less, except for the fact that he doesn’t get his usual delicious homemade meat dishes. When Yeong-hye is admitted to hospital after an attempted suicide, he looks for excuses not to visit her.
If only my colleagues had decided to go for drinks after work, I would have had the perfect excuse to avoid the ward for another two hours. But it was Monday, so there was no chance of any such reprieve.
Passion simmers, but for the wrong people. Mr Cheong for his sister-in-law In-hye, the artist brother-in-law for Yeong-hye, his sister-in-law. Yet again Yeong-hye becomes a victim, this time of her brother-in-law’s sick and twisted desires, disguised as art. Soon Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism turns to something much more sinister.
We get three different perspectives (two of them of highly questionable reliability) of three different periods in Yeong-hye’s life. The novel’s tone changes as we move from one narrator to the other; from Mr Cheong’s cold, irritated and darkly comic voice, to the brother-in-law’s lustful, predatory tone, ending with In-hye, the dependable, responsible older sister’s desperate cry for help.
The Vegetarian is a novel of contradictions. It deals with momentous issues: domestic abuse, eating disorders, rape, sexism, break-down of the family, yet none of this is articulated in any explicit way. It’s all just suffered, quietly and devastatingly. It’s also an extremely sensual novel, at the same time most relationships are cold and unemotional. There are mouth-watering descriptions of food and vivid colours, yet the setting is desolate and clinical.
This book won’t be everyone’s cup of tea. It’s darkly funny and just plain dark, claustrophobic and eerie. But if you enjoy weird, this is of the premium kind and a book that will leave you with plenty to chew on.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang and translated by Deborah Smith is published by Portobello Books, 183 pages.
The Guardian: Han Kang and Deborah Smith on working together