The Vegetarian, 2007
Signed up the 05/04/2017
A three part drama novella set in the South Korean capital of Seoul, The Vegetarian by Han Kang tells the story of how a woman named Yeong-hye's decision to stop eating meat as a result of a bloody nightmare causes her life and the lives of her family members to unravel horrifically.
Written in phenomenally sparse prose, with no words wasted, and with an exceptionally tightly woven plot, I can't think of a way of saying more than what I've said about what happens in the book in the introductory paragraph without giving away crucial plot points. Nevertheless, this is a spellbinding book whose handling of a subject of great interest as well as elegant mixture of beauty and horror may render you unable to put it down from the time you read the first sentence. It eschews what can be considered, on a certain level, the traditional model of what books about topics such as vegetarianism end up being about; some search for or discovery of enlightenment. It instead embraces its horrors not as trials, but as truths of life.
The Vegetarian is also a meditation on womanhood in a deeply patriarchal society – the brutality of how they're treated, how they move under the crushing weight of societal expectation, the grief & suffering it brings them and the often ignored & unattended but everlasting ways in which it all affects them. It is about the savagery with which the pain of the most devastating parts of life can gnaw away at one without any legitimate hope for resolution or safety from it. Even while doing this, it never feels overwhelming, but rather hauntingly familiar. You may not always relate to what the characters are going through on a personal level but it will at least feel recognisable when you don't.
Finally, it is an investigation of the relationship between the self and sanity, and how much one's ability to perceive one in themselves has to do with the extent to which they believe they truly are the other. How tenuous the thread which ties them together is. What happens when one is based on some sort of falsehood or self-deception and comes to the light of the other that it is so. The internal lives of the characters that populate the deeply intimate world of this story are revealed to us with such unassuming and deft technique, never once becoming sprawling or self-aggrandising but remaining compelling at every turn.
I read this whole book in a single four hour sitting and did so again the following day so as to be immersed in it once more. It's lingered on my mind in the days since constantly. Ultimately, that's the kind of book it is; the kind that stays with you long after you're done with it because it casts a very long shadow on what you think you understand of the psychological and emotional maelstroms of others.
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