The Vegetarian - Hang Kang - 2015 - Portobello Books
While scrolling through my pictures that I'd taken of this book while reading it I became very aware that I hadn't managed to get a single one where I wasn't about to eat something... The irony is not lost on me but at least I didn't use the McDonald's pic...
This book has been getting a lot of attention recently, and I've been making more of an effort recently to read more diversely, and to read translated works. I'd also just finished All the Light we Cannot See and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet which are both pretty chunky, slow burning books, so I was looking for something short and snappy to break things up. All of these factors culminated in me reading the Vegetarian, and I'm so glad I did.
This book is short, but it is not an easy read. It is a rather harrowing account of a meek, submissive Korean housewife, beginning to lose her mind. It's hard to explain too much of this book without ruining the very carefully constructed narrative, but essentially her story is told in three acts, through the eyes of first her husband, then her brother-in-law, and finally her sister. We follow her through the eyes of other characters so we never get a true account of what is going on inside this woman's head, how mentally sound her decisions are, to what extent she understands what she is doing. It's impossible to truly identify with her, as such she remains a distant, though not unsympathetic character throughout the novel. In many ways this story isn't really even about her, it's about the people around her, and their reactions to watching this woman completely turning her back on societal expectations and decisions. It's about her husband, worrying more that his wife's eating habits will embarrass him in front of his co-workers, than the reasons she is suddenly eschewing meat. It's about her brother-in-law, an ageing failed artist, who sees his sister's wife's sudden transformation as a spark that could rekindle his artistic fervor. Through all of the acts, it is about her sister, a self made woman who has survived by always doing the right thing, faced with this sudden act of rebellion, wondering whether her own life is simply slavery to societal expectation and nothing more.
This book is appalling, without being melodramatic. Kang does a beautiful job of treading this fine line of controlled hysteria. The novel shows one awful scene after another, but each is relayed in this incredibly restrained way, never getting to the stage where we're rolling our eyes and the suspension of disbelief has worn thin. Deborah Smith's translation is gorgeous as well. Obviously I cannot compare to the original Korean, but the sparse, beautifully written prose perfectly relays the bleak, bizarre narrative and the ways in which imagery and natural scenes are described is rich and melancholic.
I would really recommend reading The Vegetarian, I'm definitely going to reread it in a few months, as I don't feel the first time round was quite enough to truly absorb the intricacies of the novel and I definitely want to spend some more time picking it apart.
Let me know if you've read this book and what you thought!
Thanks for reading,