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The International Man Booker Award Winner for 2016 is one of the most bizarre books I have read in recent times. Dark, unrelenting, heartbreaking and unputdownable. I read it in less than a day and woke up to nightmares. Its bizarreness made me love it, and The Vegetarian by Han Kang will stay with me for a long long time.
Yeong-hye is an ordinary woman, and apart from the fact that she refuses to wear a bra, Mr Cheong, her husband finds no special attraction in her nor any significant drawback. He marries her because he has to affect no intellectual leanings to impress her.She keeps a good home and is a good cook. All is well until the day she decides she will eat no meat. She refuses to keep meat at home, does not want to have sex with Mr Cheong because he smells of flesh, and rapidly loses weight. Her family reacts sharply to her decision, apologizing to Mr Cheong for the trouble she is putting him through and at a family meeting, her father forces meat into her mouth.
The Vegetarian is not a book on the benefits of people turning vegetarian. Rather, it is a painful look at how a woman’s decision to make a culturally unacceptable choice invites brutality and violence on her, and how she loses connection with not only the people around her, but even to her own self. It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted.
The three part book, originally published as linked short novellas in Korean, explores Yeong-hye’s condition through the eyes of her cold husband Mr Cheong, her artist brother-in-law, and her sister In-hye. In In-hye’s account, the saddest and most brutal of all, we find reasons for Yeong-hye’s nightmares and downward spiral, and her own anger that her sister had soared above the boundaries all by herself. She was unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. Han Kang is reportedly influenced by poet Yi Sang’s line “I believe that humans should be plants.”; in The Vegetarian that is what Yeong-nye wants to be, and in her final act she rejects humanity and wants to be a tree, nourished only by water.
The Vegetarian is a strong commentary on the brutalities women in patriarchal societies face, how they protect themselves and how fragility itself gives one courage to assert control over one’s life.
The translator Deborah White has done a brilliant job of immersing herself in the Korean culture and its nuances.
The Vegetarian is totally deserving of its award!!