A Korean woman stops eating meat. Not, you might think, a particularly compelling premise for a novel.
But in Han Kang’s masterful novel it signals the beginning of a dark and disturbing descent into misery and madness.
The book revolves around the titular vegetarian Yeong-hye but we never actually get inside her mind.
Rather, the three-act story is told from the perspective of three others – her callous husband, her very messed-up brother-in-law and her downtrodden sister.
Each part of this triptych has a distinct style but they share similarly strange imagery and characters; just about everyone in this book is delusional or sexually perverted or in some other way afflicted.
The writing – at least in this English translation – is simple and straightforward but this is not an easy read. It’s discomfiting and sometimes stomach-churning.
The book deals a great deal with the power of dreams but not to enlighten or inspire. In The Vegetarian, dreams are altogether different and darker things – more than just warnings or portents, they serve almost as plague-bringers, driving their dreamers insane.
Indeed, at its core this is a book about mental illness but rather than explore it through traditional family drama it chooses horror as its vehicle. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a horror novel – not in the traditional sense – but it is horrific.
It’s also really damn good.
Next: Something more uplifting: grinding poverty