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The Vegetarian by Han Kang (translated by Deborah Smith)

 

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The Vegetarian is a highly unusual, psychologically complex and thoughtful novel which explores themes around identity, family, mental illness and questions about how we choose to live in this world. It’s set in Korea and written in Korean and translated to English. This book is the Man Booker Prize winner for 2016.

This three part novel is the story of a woman, (described as unremarkable by her husband), who has a dream which leads to her giving up eating meat. She begins to change in many ways which we see as descending into some kind of mental illness apparently driven by her series of dreams.

The story, Yeong-hye‘s story, is told from three points of view, first from her husband’s, then from her obsessed artist brother-in-law’s and finally from the point of view of her sister. The different perspectives add layers of complexity to her story and pull in many aspects of her life, including childhood trauma.

The Vegetarian is a strange novel and a very intense one particularly in the second part. Yeong-hye tells the other characters and through them the reader, we won’t understand her dreams and how they are changing her life. We’re given enough clues about her life story that we feel compelled to understand what is going on with her, and yet it is easy enough to dismiss her experience as an illness.

It’s a very moving book which quickly shattered any expectations I might have had of it going in. I didn’t want to stop reading it, even though it was disturbing through much of its length. I suppose there are more questions here than answers. We’re never quite sure what is going on with Yeong-hye because even though the writer offers up 3 perspectives, none of them is the perspective of the main character herself.

Highly Recommended.

 

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