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Pound of flesh: Annetjie van Wynegaard reviews The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith

This South Korean novel addresses the plight of women everywhere, writes Annetjie van Wynegaard for the Sunday Times

The VegetarianThe Vegetarian
Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith (Hogarth)
*****

South Korean author Han Kang’s novel The Vegetarian is about what women put up with for the sake of being perceived as normal. It’s about crossing boundaries — both mental and physical — and severing the familial ties that bind you to society.

The novel starts when Yeong-hye — up until this point a docile, unremarkable wife, according to her husband — decides to become vegetarian.

The first vignette is told through the eyes of her husband who finds her in the kitchen late one night, discarding all the meat products she can find. When he brusquely asks her what on earth she’s doing, Yeong-hye gives a simple yet startling reply — “I had a dream.”

Kang cleverly sketches the different sides of Yeong-hye’s gradual decline through the eyes of her brute of a husband, her lewd brother-in-law, and her sister, the epitome of the submissive wife and mother.

The reader catches brief glimpses of Yeong-hye’s thoughts and feelings through her disturbing dreams, but this insight dissolves as she locks herself inside her body, away from the world. The first part culminates in a family lunch that takes a violent turn when Yeong-hye’s family try to force-feed her morsels of meat.

The second part of the novel takes place two years after the events of the first and is told from the perspective of the brother-in-law. He becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye’s birthmark and what follows is his feverish obsession to make her body the canvas for his erotic fantasies.

In the final chapter — through the eyes of perhaps the person closest to Yeong-hye, her sister In-hye — we see the total disintegration of Yeong-hye’s body and mind. As she watches her sister waste away, In-hye remembers a moment when she too attempted to escape. She realised how easy it is to lose yourself: “Perhaps, at some point, Yeong-hye had simply let fall the slender thread that had kept her connected with everyday life.”

Deborah Smith’s translation captures the poetic simplicity of this short novel, which was published in 2007 and recently received the 2016 Man Booker International Prize.

The Vegetarian is foremost a story of abuse, rebellion and taboo. A simple act of swearing off meat causes Yeong-hye’s family to react violently; each person in turn asserting their right to control her body. No one knows how to handle her “disobedience”; going against the wishes of your husband and father is not something that you do in Korean culture. Yet, it’s her “otherness” that inspires her brother-in-law to pursue his innermost desires.

It’s quite fitting then, that Yeong-hye never speaks for herself in the novel but rather speaks through the metamorphosis of her body, from docile to defiant, a site of struggle and protest. The Vegetarian shook the ground I walked on. It was a necessary awakening.

Follow @Annetjievw

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