Wednesday, August 10, 2016

WITMonth Day 10 | The Vegetarian - Han Kang | Review

Pretty much everyone in the world of literature in translation has heard of The Vegetarian (translated by Deborah Smith) by now. Rightly so. The novel won the Man Booker International Prize and has appeared at the top of quite a few reader's WITMonth recommendation lists. It's a good book, deserving of praise and recognition in circles well beyond just "literature in translation".

I'll start by pointing to the image on the left: this is the cover that I have. My first introduction to The Vegetarian was through a comment focused on the cover (I honestly cannot remember where I saw this, unfortunately), noting that while the flowers initially look pretty and elegant, the image quickly becomes grotesque and rather disturbing. And this was what happened when I got the book and finally read it: The story at first seems like it could progress normally, but it slowly loses bits and pieces and forms a very different puzzle. The more toned-down later covers (like the rather noble-looking US cover below) lose some of that creep factor, but they also find a way to present the book more wholly to a wider audience. The original cover... well, it's really uncomfortable to look at. The book might be uncomfortable in many ways, but it's a more subtle form.

I won't bother to summarize the story, not least because dozens of far more insightful readers have unpacked the plot and the morals and the ideas. Suffice to say that The Vegetarian is very much about the notion of rebellion, about feeling wrong in your skin and losing yourself.

The book is comprised of three sections - novellas, really. They follow Yeong-hye's gradual loss of control - first in her repulsion to meat (a shock to her family in a culture in which vegetarianism is largely non-existent), then her discomfort in her physical form, a gradual aversion to food of all sorts, and finally a physical and mental state that hovers on the ethereal.

The Vegetarian is Yeong-hye's story, yet she is not the narrator or its primary source. Each novella looks at Yeong-hye's descent (ascent?) from a different angle, always slightly distant and shaded by the primary narrator (her husband, brother-in-law, and sister, respectively). We never hear Yeong-hye's thoughts directly, instead getting her description of a disturbing dream from her husband, observations of her bodily discomfort from her brother in law, and an understanding of mental illness from her sister. It's a trick that keeps The Vegetarian almost in check, never getting overly emotional or sentimental. The style reminded me a bit of Yoko Ogawa's Revenge, mostly in that it's all a bit disturbing and weird, but in a really crisp way. It work.

It helps that the book is written in such a way that you can't help but want to devour it. Crisply written and beautifully translated, The Vegetarian hooks you quickly and refuses to let go. Luckily, the book is fairly short, but it's not exactly a quick read. There's a depth to this story that demands attention, care and space.

There's really not much more to say. While the book is somewhat disturbing in the themes it explores (and specifically the way it explores them), it's the sort of unsettling feeling that makes a book last longer in your taste buds. I imagine some readers might find even this level of - shall we call it? - horror unpleasant and not to their taste, but I personally enjoyed it (and I detest horror). The Vegetarian is thought-provoking and beguiling and exactly what everyone promised it would be: a really, really good book.

1 comment:

  1. Fab review and I totally agree with you about the cover images.


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