The Vegetarian by Han Kang

It has been a little while since my last post. I decided to take a little break from blogging. I was struggling to enjoy reading or to find the time to dedicate to book blogging that is required to make it worthwhile. However, while I’ve been away, I finished Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I thoroughly enjoyed the book although it is a bit of a mammoth undertaking, so I am going to wait before tackling Bringing Up The Bodies.

The book, however, that has inspired me to return to blogging is The Vegetarian by Han Kang. I picked it up on a whim as it was in the charity shop. I had vaguely heard of it with no real notion of what it was about or if it was any good. When I was deciding what to read after Wolf Hall, I wanted something short and manageable so decided to give it a go. What followed is one of the most powerful reading experiences of my life. The book shook me to my foundations. This is going to be less of a review and more of a love letter to the sheer brilliance of this book.

The Vegetarian follows the story of a family’s reaction to the news that the main protagonist, Yeong-Hye, has taken the decision to become a vegetarian. The first part of the book is narrated in the first-person perspective of Yeong-Hye’s husband. He is a career man driven by work and the desire to be successful. The most important thing for him is to fit in. To appear ‘correct’. He takes his wife’s decision to become a vegetarian as a personal affront and sets about correcting her choices. Breaking point is reached following a company dinner during which he believes his wife has embarrassed him. He calls Yeong-Hye’s family together and relies on them to set her straight. This has a disastrous impact on the entire family. Yeong-Hye is determined not to eat meat. Despite her mother’s pleas, her father’s violence and her husband’s hatred. Her explanation that the decision was brought on by a dream does little to assuage their concerns.

Part two of the story is no longer told in the first person. It is third person but from the viewpoint of Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law. He is a struggling artist who relies on his wife, In-Hye, to provide enough money for the family to survive while he pursues the perfect piece of visual art. He becomes obsessed with a vision he has had involving two bodies, painted with flowers, becoming entwined and writhing. He sees Yeong-Hye as the perfect model for this work. Taking the opportunity of his wife asking him to check on her sister to proposition her to come and model for him. Gradually becoming more and more obsessed with Yeong-Hye and the perfect piece of art, what follows is a series of intensely erotic meetings between the pair eventually culminating in disaster.

The third and final part of the novel is told from the perspective of Yeong-Hye’s sister, in-Hye. Separated from her husband and trying to raise a young child while running a business, In-Hye is under incredible pressure. But still feels she must care for her sister. We travel with In-Hye on a journey to visit her sister as she contemplates her life, where it went wrong and what she can try and do to improve both her and her sister’s life. I wish I could tell you more about this part, as it is truly astonishing, but I refuse to spoil such a wonderful book. By the end of the story all the characters are fundamentally changed.

There is so much to love about this book that I don’t even know where to start. One aspect which is brilliantly executed is the structure. To use three parts, each from a distinct perspective, each slightly later in the story, makes the novel feel incredibly succinct and griping. Each part is almost like a short story in and of itself, but the narrative strands run throughout the entire book. If the story were told entirely from one perspective, there is a risk we would lose the connection to the story. Han Kang as done a remarkable job of creating distinctive, relatable, detestable, human beings. I can’t think of another story where I have felt so connected to the characters. Completely part of the world and what is happening in it.

Before I go any further in my praise of this book, I must point out the astonishing translation of this book which was done by Deborah Smith. Often translations can lead to writing feeling clunky or not quite right. There is absolutely no chance of that with this book. Each sentence flows beautifully into the next. The structure is perfect, the dialogue realistic. I can’t imagine how hard it is to translate a Korean book into English, but Deborah Smith has managed to make it seem effortless and natural. You totally forget this book is a translation once you are into it and that is the ultimate compliment which can be paid to any piece of translated writing.

The writing in The Vegetarian is staggeringly beautiful. It is the sort of writing which makes you realise why you ever fell in love with reading. The descriptions of nature, arguments, people, sex, mental health are all so meticulously well crafted. There are no wasted words. No jarring turns of phrases. It is a long silky piece of masterful prose. Yeong-Hye describing her dreams reduced me to tears. A scene in which Yeong-Hye rebels from her family and refuses to follow their demands filled my heart with love. The sex scenes, arguably the most difficult for any author to write convincingly, are incredibly erotic without ever feeling awkward or gratuitous. Every sentence, down to the very last of the novel are perfectly crafted. I have never read a book which makes such remarkable use of language to engage a reader.

The powerful emotions this book elicits towards each of the characters, in just 183 pages, are more visceral and potent than most 400-page novels ever get close to achieving. The characters are so real. They leap off the page and into your imagination. You truly feel like you know them, how they are going to react, what they will do next, why they act the way they do. The book is an intense journey and having such real personalities means you are never pulled out of that journey. That is a crucial factor for a book such as this. No matter how beautiful the writing is, without a connection to the characters, most readers are very unlikely to stick with a story. The character development throughout this story is astonishing.

Never has a book made me feel so much for characters. Or made me think more about myself. Not just who I am but my mental health, my interactions with others and what life means. It affected me on such a deep and meaningful level that I have felt the need to take a short break from reading fiction, unable to imagine myself connecting with another book ever again. The Vegetarian is the best book I have ever read. It is that simple. I don’t know if I have managed to make that clear through my review. I hope I have. Read this book. Buy, steal or borrow a copy (preferably buy a copy from an independent book store but hey I’m not judging!) I promise you it is worth it. Thanks for reading!        

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