Book 17: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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

Author: adamgartrell

Political journalist drowning in books

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