The Vegetarian by Han Kang won the 2016 Man Booker Prize. That is what made me pick up this book for reading. I also wanted to read a book from South Korea and know it a bit about its contemporary culture.
The most important thing you need to know about this book The Vegetarian is that title can be misleading. You might think you may become a vegetarian after reading this book. Or this book should be about peace and calm as the vegetarianism is popularly perceived to be. The story of this book is violent and violent at various levels. Yeong Hye – a married woman with mundane life is the central protagonist in of the story. However, you only hear her say a few sentences in the book. Her story is revealed to the reader through 3 different characters around her – all from her family. These 3 stories tell you about 3 different aspects, 3 different phases of Yeong Hye’s life. Author Han Kang has divided her narrative in 3 different stories that are remarkably equal sized.
The Vegetarian book begins with Yeong Hye turning Vegetarian after she had a dream. Told by her husband, in this part of the story, you hear how it impacted their silent married life or his social standing. As she remained adamant on being vegetarian, her family tries to force her to eat, only forcing her to attempt suicide. The husband tries to nurture her back, hoping that one fine day she would come back to normalcy. However, he would give up after a while. And this is what we come to know in the next part of the book, which tells the story from Yeong Hye’s brother-in-law’s point of view.
Brother-in-law’s story brings out the artist in him who gets obsessed by the Mongolian Mark on her sister-in-law’s body. He decides to do an art project with her. She agrees and goes on to have a sexual ecstasy in the process, all the while remaining a silent participant in the whole process. The story ends when the sister and the wife discover about this encounter.
The third story is from the perspective of the sister of Yeong Hye when she has taken the role of caregiver for her. Here the story goes inwards for both sisters. What I found a bit disappointing was that author takes everything back to what the sisters were denied in childhood. Blaming everything on childhood trauma – real or imagined is a fad that people are flowing with. When something goes wrong or when something does not happen the way you want it – you can get into this endless if-then-else analysis. An endless creation of imagined scenes where you wipe out all that is negative and imagine just the positive parts just like we do in our dreams. Author has not explicitly mentioned the end but it is quite obvious where it ends.
By the time I was reading the third part, I lost connection with the title of the book. The protagonist turning Vegetarian was no longer meaningful. The story could have been based anywhere. I just got a glimpse of the Korean family life. I am not sure if this is how it was originally written by Han Kang. Or is this the way it came across in translation.
The language of the book is excellent. It creates the scene very well. There is an element of drama in it. I would not be surprised if we will soon see a film based on this work. Author Han Kang and the translator have worked on the surprises very well. You have no idea what the next page will bring, leave apart the next section of the book. Each section takes the story a bit forward while taking the frequent stops to look back at the past. I quite enjoyed the language and a zig-zag flow of the narrative. The three sections make you look at the same person from 3 different angles. The story reveals itself is like peeling its own layers. I think the book is extremely well structured and appropriately paced. It is a small book that can be easily read in a day or so.
Worth a read.