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