Friday Reads – The Vegetarian 

Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way.

And so begins the novel by Han Kang that is itself anything but unremarkable – a small novel, both in length and in story, but quite brutal in its impact.


It follows Yeong-hye, the “completely ordinary wife” who one day, following a disturbing dream, decides to become vegetarian. This simple act of subversion shocks and appalls her husband and her family. This is no pro or anti vegetarian novel – there is no politicising from the author about the act of eating meat. Instead, it is the impact that decision has in a Korean society, and the reasons behind that decision, that form the basis of this novel.

Yeong-hye is central to the novel, the protagonist, and yet she is also like an empty hole in the middle of it – the novel is told from the perspective of three different characters, neither of whom are her. The author learns very little about Yeong-hye’s life, both before and after her decision to turn vegetarian, and yet becomes deeply engrossed in the lives of those writing about Yeong-hye – her husband, her brother-in-law, her sister. Each section could almost be a different novel, and yet each is centred around the character of Yeong-Hye.

From the simple beginning, the novel turns darker, more violent, as Yeong-hye’s decision not to eat meat leads to Yeong-hye shrinking into herself, losing weight until the lines of her body become razor-sharp, ceasing to talk, to sleep, ceasing to eat entirely. There are moments of brutality in self-harm, in sexual violence, in force-feeding. And there are moments of beauty.

It is a really strange novel, like nothing else you will read (unless perhaps another Han Kang!) but it is exquisite – the kind of book that lingers on in your mind long after you put it down.

Currently reading: Runner: a short story about a long run by Lizzie Hawker

 

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