The Vegetarian by Han Kang ★★★★

img_556712The Vegetarian is a haunting, beautiful and shocking novel set in South Korea, following a woman’s controversial decision to become a vegetarian and the consequences this has on herself and her family. Yeong-hye is described as completely unremarkable; she has no great passions, and is neither deeply happy nor unhappy with her life as an attentive spouse to her unambitious and unkind husband, Mr Cheong. Their ordinary lives begin to unravel one night however, after Yeong-hye has an aggressive, bloody dream that leads her to throw away all the meat in the house, and to retreat from the people around her. This novel is not about the moral decision concerning whether or not to become vegetarian as one may expect, but is more a poignant exploration of individuality, desires and taboos. This novel is translated from Korean, which makes it even the more remarkable.

The novel is split into three short acts, first focusing on Yeong-hye’s husband, Mr Cheong, next on Yeong-hye’s husband-in-law, and lastly on her sister, In-hye. Each act takes place two years after the previous, and so we get to see the different stages of Yeong-hye’s mental and physical deterioration, but from different perspectives. Each section also builds on the others to fill in certain gaps, which gave the story a really three dimensional feel. I loved how precise the narrative was; Kang wastes no words and the story has a calm, still feel, while at the same time being extremely beautiful and poetic.

The novel is, but is not limited to, an exploration of cultural limits and the expectations of behaviour, and the brutal treatment of women; it is a story of rebellion and rage. It is also an unflinching exploration of psychological pain and suffering, and what sanity/insanity is. These themes were explored with startling frankness, making it deeply disturbing but effective.

Reading this novel was truly a remarkable experience. It is full of visceral, violent imagery, alongside sensual, seductive descriptions, and the overall effect was outstanding, if not strange. I was constantly shocked as I read this novel, and was often left with an unsettled feeling. Ultimately, I found this novel to be utterly engrossing, thought-provoking and original.

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