The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Yeong-Hye wakes from a violent, vivid nightmare, and suddenly renounces her desire to consume meat.

In a society that condemns subversion and fights for control over female bodies, her act is one of defiance, one that threatens the very core of her marriage, her family, and society at large. Her husband, appalled and ashamed at his wife’s decision, grows in his resentment and disgust, becoming increasingly callous towards her. Nobody understands this radical departure from the norm – and the explanation Yeong-Hye provides – her dream – just adds to their concern over her mental well being.

Things reach a crescendo at a family dinner, where Yeong-Hye’s father violently pushes a lump of meat into her mouth. When he fails to succeed in this reclamation of power, he strikes her across the face. In response, Yeong-Hye slashes open her wrists with a knife.

What follows is a steady, nightmarish spiral into an existence even more absurd and alienating than before.

“The sunlight that came splintering through the wide window, dissolving into grains of sand, and the beauty of that body that, though this was not visible to the eye, was also ceaselessly splintering …”

This short, powerful novel sweeps you up in its frightening tale, mesmerisingly rendered in sparing and lyrical prose, where horror and violence is precise and vivid.

As a vegetarian myself, it is hard to imagine living in a society where a personal choice about what to eat could be such a deep transgression, one that could lead to total social ostracisation. With food an integral part of so many cultures, a refusal to participate in such commonplace social rituals becomes, in the world of the book, a rejection of some of the fundamental norms of Korean society.

The way that Yeong-Hye’s physicality is portrayed is also piercing and deeply uncomfortable – subject to an endless objectified gaze, her body becomes the battlefield at the centre of the conflict.

A harrowing and disturbing book, one that is nonetheless fascinating and written (and translated) beautifully.

 

 

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