The Vegetarianby Han Kang
A beautiful, unsettling novel about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul
Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and/b>/b>
A beautiful, unsettling novel about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul
Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. As her husband, her brother-in-law and sister each fight to reassert their control, Yeong-hye obsessively defends the choice that’s become sacred to her. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting first her mind, and then her body, to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiraling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement, not only from those closest to her, but also from herself.
Celebrated by critics around the world, The Vegetarian is a darkly allegorical, Kafka-esque tale of power, obsession, and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within her.
Reviewed by Gabe HabashYou may think you know where Han's English-language debut novel is going, but you have no idea. At first, its mundane strangeness may remind you of the works of Haruki Murakami: Mr. Cheong, a Seoul businessman wakes up one night to find his wife, Yeong-hye, standing in the kitchen in front of their refrigerator. Mr. Cheong, who is drawn to Yeong-hye for no particular reason other than her passiveness, is taken aback. He's even more surprised when "the most ordinary woman in the world" declares she won't eat meat because she's had a bloody dream. Things get weirder, and you might be reminded of Patrick Süskind's Perfume, as Han's narrative takes a sharp turn in its second part—a tale of obsession, grotesque physicality, and art. Or, as the emotional and physical violence mounts, you might be reminded of Herman Koch's The Dinner for its depiction of the animal baseness lurking just below civility. And then things take a turn again, and Han's third and final part might remind you of Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life for its display of raw emotion. To go into much detail about how The Vegetarian is both similar to these other works yet also possesses its own singular wonder would do it a disservice. Suffice it to say, Mr. Cheong's true nature is revealed, and Yeong-hye's family members are soon swept up in her mysterious change, which manifests itself in increasingly odd ways: she begins to eat less and less, and then not at all, and she becomes fond of taking off her clothes on sunny days. The atmosphere of growing dread is entrancing and tense, and readers will find a bounty of bizarre, ominous images: an IV bag filling with blood, a bird squeezed in a fist, and a psychiatric ward in the forest where a gloomy rain is continually falling. There—I've already said too much. Yeong-hye, as the center of the novel, forces the other characters to confront what they really want, and to confront what this desire says about who they are. This is a horror story in its depiction of the unknowability of others—of the sudden feeling that you've never actually known someone close to you. It's also a decidedly literary story for its exploration of despair, inner unrest, and the pain of coming to understand yourself. There is much to admire in Han's novel. Its three-part structure is brilliant, gradually digging deeper and deeper into darker and darker places; the writing is spare and haunting; but perhaps most memorable is its crushing climax, a phantasmagoric yet emotionally true moment that's surely one of the year's most powerful. This is an ingenious, upsetting, and unforgettable novel.Gabe Habash is the deputy reviews editor of Publishers Weekly.
“The Vegetarian is one of the best novels I’ve read in years. It’s incredible, daring, and stunningly moving. I loved it.”—Laura van den Berg, author of Find Me
“Provocative...shocking.”—The Washington Post
"A complex, terrifying look at how seemingly simple decisions can affect multiple lives...In a world where women’s bodies are constantly under scrutiny, the protagonist’s desire to disappear inside of herself feels scarily familiar."—VanityFair.com
"Indebted to Kafka, this story of a South Korean woman's radical transformation, which begins after she forsakes meat, will have you reading with your hand over your mouth in shock." —O, the Oprah Magazine
“The Vegetarian is the first—there will be more, let’s hope—of Han Kang’s novels to arrive in the United States…The style is realistic and psychological, and denies us the comfort that might be wrung from a fairy tale or a myth of metamorphosis. We all like to read about girls swapping their fish tails for legs or their unwrinkled arms for branches, but—at the risk of stating the obvious—a person cannot become a potted bit of green foodstuff. That Yeong-hye seems not to know this makes her dangerous, and doomed.”—Harper’s Magazine
“A horror story in its depiction of the unknowability of others—of the sudden feeling that you've never actually known someone close to you….Its three-part structure is brilliant, gradually digging deeper and deeper into darker and darker places; the writing is spare and haunting; but perhaps most memorable is its crushing climax, a phantasmagoric yet emotionally true moment that's surely one of the year's most powerful. This is an ingenious, upsetting, and unforgettable novel.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"[A] spare, spectacular novel...Family dysfunction amid cultural suffocation is presented with elegant precision, transforming readers into complicit voyeurs. Fans of authors as diverse as Mary Karr and Haruki Murakami won't be able to turn away."—Library Journal (starred review)
"The book insists on a reader’s attention, with an almost hypnotically serene atmosphere interrupted by surreal images and frighteningly recognizable moments of ordinary despair. Han writes convincingly of the disruptive power of longing and the choice to either embrace or deny it, using details that are nearly fantastical in their strangeness to cut to the heart of the very human experience of discovering that one is no longer content with life as it is. An unusual and mesmerizing novel, gracefully written and deeply disturbing."—Kirkus
"Searing...[Yeong-hye's] extreme efforts to separate herself from her animal appetites reveal the sanity and normality of those closest to her to be mere matchstick houses."—Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird
"Suffused with a sensibility that evokes the matter-of-fact surrealism of Franz Kafka, featuring a female protagonist as engagingly perverse as Melville’s Bartleby, Han Kang’s slender but robust novel addresses many vital matters—from the politics of gender to the presumptions of the male gaze, the conundrum of free will to the hegemony of meat—with a dark élan that vegetarians and carnivores alike will find hypnotic, erotic, disquieting, and wise.—James Morrow, author of Galápagos Regained
"A strange, painfully tender exploration of the brutality of desire indulged and the fatality of desire ignored, rendered all the more so by Deborah Smith's exquisite translation."—Eimear McBride, Baileys Women's Prize-winning author of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing
"Visceral and terrifying, The Vegetarian is a startling reminder of the utter unknowability of another's mind. Nonetheless, reading it, you will feel it in your flesh: the desire for peace, a plea for safety, for escape from your own inevitable mortality. It is artfully plotted yet reads like a fever dream, sweeping and surreal. It will leave you aching."—Sarah Gerard, author of Binary Star
"Like a small seed, Han Kang’s startling and unforgettable debut goes to work quietly, but insistently. Her prose is so balanced, so elegant and assured, you might overlook the depths of this novel’s darkness—do so at your own peril."—Colin Winnette, author of Haints Stay and Coyote
"The Vegetarian is a story about metamorphosis, rage and the desire for another sort of life. It is written in cool, still, poetic but matter-of-fact short sentences, translated luminously by Deborah Smith, who is obviously a genius."—Deborah Levy, author of The Unloved and Swimming Home
"The Vegetarian is hypnotically strange, sad, beautiful and compelling. I liked it immensely."—Nathan Filer, 2013 Costa First Novel award-winning author of The Shock of the Fall
"A stunning and beautifully haunting novel. It seems in places as if the very words on the page are photosynthesising. I loved this graceful, vivid book."—Jess Richards, Costa First Novel Award shortlisted author of Snake Ropes
"Poetic and beguiling, and translated with tremendous elegance, The Vegetarian exhilarates and disturbs."—Chloe Aridjis, author of The Book of Clouds
“Dark dreams, simmering tensions, chilling violence…This South Korean novel is a feast…It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colors and disturbing questions…Sentence by sentence, The Vegetarian is an extraordinary experience… [It] will be hard to beat.”—The Guardian
"This is an odd and enthralling novel; its story filled with nihilism but lyricism too, its writing understated even in its most fevered, violent moments. It has a surreal and spellbinding quality, especially in its passage on nature and the physical landscape, so beautiful and so magnificently impervious to the human suffering around it."—Arifa Akbar, The Independent
“This short novel is one of the most startling I have read… Exciting and imaginative…The author reveals how nature, sex and art crash through this polite society…It is the women who are killed for daring to establish their own identity. The narrative makes it clear it is the crushing pressure of Korean etiquette which murders them…[A] disturbing book.”—Julia Pascal, The Independent
"Immediately absorbing...The different perspectives offered are so beautifully distinctive...Every word matters."—Sunday Herald
"Shocking...The writing throughout is precise and spare, with not a word wasted. There are no tricks. Han holds the reader in a vice grip...The Vegetarian quickly settles into a dark, menacing brilliance that is similar to the work of the gifted Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa in its devastating study of psychological pain...The Vegetarian is more than a cautionary tale about the brutal treatment of women: it is a meditation on suffering and grief. It is about escape and how a dreamer takes flight. Most of all, it is about the emptiness and rage of discovering there is nothing to be done when all hope and comfort fails....A work of savage beauty and unnerving physicality."—Irish Times
“The Vegetarian is a book about the failures of language and the mysteries of the physical. Yet its message should not undermine Han’s achievement as a writer. Like its anti-protagonist, The Vegetarian whispers so clearly, it can be heard across the room, insistently and with devastating, quiet violence.”—Joanna Walsh, The New Statesman
“[A] strange and ethereal fable, rendered stranger still by the cool precision of the prose… What is ultimately most troubling about Yeong-hye’s post-human fantasies is that they appear to be a reasonable alternative to the world of repression and denial in which everyone around her exists.”—Times Literary Supplement
"The Vegetarian is so strange and vivid it left me breathless upon finishing it. I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel as mouth-wateringly poetic, or as drenched in hypnotic oddities, taboos and scandal. It seems to have been plucked out of the ether, ready-made to take us all by surprise. Exciting and compelling"—Lee Rourke, New Humanist
"The Vegetarian is so strange and vivid it left me breathless upon finishing it. I don't think I've ever read a novel as mouth-wateringly poetic, or as drenched in hypnotic oddities, taboos and scandal. It seems to have been plucked out of the ether, ready-made to take us all by surprise"—New Internationalist
"The Vegetarian combines human violence and the possibility of innocence...[A] frightening beauty of a novel." -British Council Literature
"Kang belongs to a generation of writers that aim to discover secret drives, ambitions, and miseries behind one's personal destiny...[The Vegetarian] deals with violence, sanity, cultural limits, and the value of the human body as the last refuge and private space." -Tiempo Argentino
"[A] bloodcurdlingly beautiful, sinister story."—Linda
"The almost perverse seduction of this book originates in the poetry of the images. They are violently erotic and rather nightmarish; the novel is like a room full of large flowers, where the musky odour takes you by the throat."—De groene Amsterdammer
"For the fans of Haruki Murakami."—Gazet van Antwerpen (starred review)
"Piercing... I was touched the most by the directness, the images, the poignant phrases and most of all the imagination with which it was written."—nrc Handelsblad
"The Vegetarian has an odd kind of silent power, which makes you want to finish it in one go and continue to think about it."—nrc Handelsblad (starred review)
"A shocking, moving and thought-provoking novel."—Trouw
"One of the most impressive novels I have read recently... You need to read this book."—Arnon Grunberg in De Volkskrant
"The Vegetarian is exciting and original."—De Standaard der Letteren (starred review)
Kang, a South Korean writing professor with Iowa Writers Workshop training, makes her English-translation debut with this spare, spectacular novel, in which a multigenerational, seemingly traditional Seoul family implodes. Yeong-hye, the youngest of three adult children, repeatedly announces "I had a dream," violent, bloody, and surreal, which causes her to stop eating meat; eventually, she eschews everything but water. Her sudden change in diet (vegetarianism remains uncommon in Korea) goes far beyond her own physical metamorphosis, as documented in three distinct sections by her self-absorbed businessman husband, her obsessive video artist brother-in-law, and her distraught shop-owner older sister. While Yeong-hye remains the crux of the disturbing narrative, her voice is rarely heard. Instead, she's ignored, interpreted, spoken over, and silenced to devastating effect. VERDICT In a culture in which mental illness is met too often with dismissal or denial, Kang's novel is sure to draw both scrutiny and applause, in no small part owing to London-based Smith's seamless translation. Family dysfunction amid cultural suffocation is presented with elegant precision, transforming readers into complicit voyeurs. Fans of authors as diverse as Mary Karr and Haruki Murakami won't be able to turn away. [See Prepub Alert, 8/27/15.]—Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon, Washington, DC
In her first novel to be published in English, South Korean writer Han divides a story about strange obsessions and metamorphosis into three parts, each with a distinct voice. Yeong-hye and her husband drift through calm, unexceptional lives devoid of passion or anything that might disrupt their domestic routine until the day that Yeong-hye takes every piece of meat from the refrigerator, throws it away, and announces that she's become a vegetarian. Her decision is sudden and rigid, inexplicable to her family and a society where unconventional choices elicit distaste and concern that borders on fear. Yeong-hye tries to explain that she had a dream, a horrifying nightmare of bloody, intimate violence, and that's why she won't eat meat, but her husband and family remain perplexed and disturbed. As Yeong-hye sinks further into both nightmares and the conviction that she must transform herself into a different kind of being, her condition alters the lives of three members of her family—her husband, brother-in-law, and sister—forcing them to confront unsettling desires and the alarming possibility that even with the closest familiarity, people remain strangers. Each of these relatives claims a section of the novel, and each section is strikingly written, equally absorbing whether lush or emotionally bleak. The book insists on a reader's attention, with an almost hypnotically serene atmosphere interrupted by surreal images and frighteningly recognizable moments of ordinary despair. Han writes convincingly of the disruptive power of longing and the choice to either embrace or deny it, using details that are nearly fantastical in their strangeness to cut to the heart of the very human experience of discovering that one is no longer content with life as it is. An unusual and mesmerizing novel, gracefully written and deeply disturbing.
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Read an Excerpt
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2015 Han Kang
Before my wife turned vegetarian, I’d always thought of her as completely unremarkable in every way. To be frank, the ﬁrst time I met her I wasn’t even attracted to her. Middling height; bobbed hair neither long nor short; jaundiced, sickly-looking skin; somewhat prominent cheekbones; her timid, sallow aspect told me all I needed to know. As she came up to the table where I was waiting, I couldn’t help but notice her shoes – the plainest black shoes imaginable. And that walk of hers – neither fast nor slow, striding nor mincing.
However, if there wasn’t any special attraction, nor did any particular drawbacks present themselves, and therefore there was no reason for the two of us not to get married. The passive personality of this woman in whom I could detect neither freshness nor charm, or anything especially reﬁned, suited me down to the ground. There was no need to affect intellectual leanings in order to win her over, or to worry that she might be comparing me to the preening men who pose in fashion catalogues, and she didn’t get worked up if I happened to be late for one of our meetings. The paunch that started appearing in my mid-twenties, my skinny legs and forearms that steadfastly refused to bulk up in spite of my best efforts, the inferiority complex I used to have about the size of my penis – I could rest assured that I wouldn’t have to fret about such things on her account.
I’ve always inclined towards the middle course in life. At school I chose to boss around those who were two or three years my junior, and with whom I could act the ringleader, rather than take my chances with those my own age, and later I chose which college to apply to based on my chances of obtaining a scholarship large enough for my needs. Ultimately, I settled for a job where I would be provided with a decent monthly salary in return for diligently carrying out my allotted tasks, at a company whose small size meant they would value my unremarkable skills. And so it was only natural that I would marry the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world. As for women who were pretty, intelligent, strikingly sensual, the daughters of rich families – they would only ever have served to disrupt my carefully ordered existence.
In keeping with my expectations, she made for a completely ordinary wife who went about things without any distasteful frivolousness. Every morning she got up at six a.m. to prepare rice and soup, and usually a bit of ﬁsh. From adolescence she’d contributed to her family’s income through the odd bit of part-time work. She ended up with a job as an assistant instructor at the computer graphics college she’d attended for a year, and was subcontracted by a manhwa publisher to work on the words for their speech bubbles, which she could do from home.
She was a woman of few words. It was rare for her to demand anything of me, and however late I was in getting home she never took it upon herself to kick up a fuss. Even when our days off happened to coincide, it wouldn’t occur to her to suggest we go out somewhere together. While I idled the afternoon away, TV remote in hand, she would shut herself up in her room. More than likely she would spend the time reading, which was practically her only hobby. For some unfathomable reason, reading was something she was able to really immerse herself in – reading books that looked so dull I couldn’t even bring myself to so much as take a look inside the covers. Only at mealtimes would she open the door and silently emerge to prepare the food. To be sure, that kind of wife, and that kind of lifestyle, did mean that I was unlikely to find my days particularly stimulating. On the other hand, if I’d had one of those wives whose phones ring on and off all day long with calls from friends or co-workers, or whose nagging periodically leads to screaming rows with their husbands, I would have been grateful when she ﬁnally wore herself out.
The only respect in which my wife was at all unusual was that she didn’t like wearing a bra. When I was a young man barely out of adolescence, and my wife and I were dating, I happened to put my hand on her back only to ﬁnd that I couldn’t feel a bra strap under her sweater, and when I realized what this meant I became quite aroused. In order to judge whether she might possibly have been trying to tell me something, I spent a minute or two looking at her through new eyes, studying her attitude. The outcome of my studies was that she wasn’t, in fact, trying to send any kind of signal. So if not, was it laziness, or just a sheer lack of concern? I couldn’t get my head round it. It wasn’t even as though she had shapely breasts which might suit the ‘no-bra look’. I would have preferred her to go around wearing one that was thickly padded, so that I could save face in front of my acquaintances.
Even in the summer, when I managed to persuade her to wear one for a while, she’d have it unhooked barely a minute after leaving the house. The undone hook would be clearly visible under her thin, light-coloured tops, but she wasn’t remotely concerned. I tried reproaching her, lecturing her to layer up with a vest instead of a bra in that sultry heat. She tried to justify herself by saying that she couldn’t stand wearing a bra because of the way it squeezed her breasts, and that I’d never worn one myself so I couldn’t understand how constricting it felt. Nevertheless, considering I knew for a fact that there were plenty of other women who, unlike her, didn’t have anything particularly against bras, I began to have doubts about this hypersensitivity of hers.
In all other respects, the course of our our married life ran smoothly. We were approaching the ﬁve-year mark, and since we were never madly in love to begin with we were able to avoid falling into that stage of weariness and boredom that can otherwise turn married life into a trial. The only thing was, because we’d decided to put off trying for children until we’d managed to secure a place of our own, which had only happened last autumn, I sometimes wondered whether I would ever get to hear the reassuring sound of a child gurgling ‘dada’, and meaning me. Until a certain day last February, when I came across my wife standing in the kitchen at day-break in just her nightclothes, I had never considered the possibility that our life together might undergo such an appalling change.
‘What are you doing standing there?’
I’d been about to switch on the bathroom light when I was brought up short. It was around four in the morning, and I’d woken up with a raging thirst from the bottle and a half of soju I’d had with dinner, which also meant I was taking longer to come to my senses than usual.
‘Hello? I asked what you’re doing?’
It was cold enough as it was, but the sight of my wife was even more chilling. Any lingering alcohol-induced drowsiness swiftly passed. She was standing, motionless, in front of the fridge. Her face was submerged in the darkness so I couldn’t make out her expression, but the potential options all ﬁlled me with fear. Her thick, naturally black hair was ﬂuffed up, dishevelled, and she was wearing her usual white ankle-length nightdress.
On such a night, my wife would ordinarily have hurriedly slipped on a cardigan and searched for her towelling slippers. How long might she have been standing there like that – barefoot, in thin summer nightwear, ramrod straight as though perfectly oblivious to my repeated interrogation? Her face was turned away from me, and she was standing there so unnaturally still it was almost as if she were some kind of ghost, silently standing its ground.
What was going on? If she couldn’t hear me then perhaps that meant she was sleepwalking.
I went towards her, craning my neck to try and get a look at her face.
‘Why are you standing there like that? What’s going on . . .’
When I put my hand on her shoulder I was surprised by her complete lack of reaction. I had no doubt that I was in my right mind and all this was really happening; I had been fully conscious of everything I had done since emerging from the living room, asking her what she was doing, and moving towards her. She was the one standing there completely unresponsive, as though lost in her own world. It was like those rare occasions when, absorbed in a late-night TV drama, she’d failed to notice me arriving home. But what could there be to absorb her attention in the pale gleam of the fridge’s white door, in the pitch-black kitchen at four in the morning?
Her proﬁle swam towards me out of the darkness. I took in her eyes, bright but not feverish, as her lips slowly parted.
‘. . . I had a dream.’
Her voice was surprisingly clear.
‘A dream? What the hell are you talking about? Do you know what time it is?’
She turned so that her body was facing me, then slowly walked off through the open door into the living room. As she entered the room she stretched out her foot and calmly pushed the door to. I was left alone in the dark kitchen, looking helplessly on as her retreating ﬁgure was swallowed up through the door.
I turned on the bathroom light and went in. The cold snap had continued for several days now, consistently hovering around -10°C. I’d showered only a few hours ago, so my plastic shower slippers were still cold and damp. The loneliness of this cruel season began to make itself felt, seeping from the black opening of the ventilation fan above the bath, leaching out of the white tiles covering the ﬂoor and walls.
When I went back into the living room my wife was lying down, her legs curled up to her chest, the silence so weighted I might as well have been alone in the room. Of course, this was just my fancy. If I stood perfectly still, held my breath and strained to listen, I was able to hear the faintest sound of breathing coming from where she lay. Yet it didn’t sound like the deep, regular breathing of someone who has fallen asleep. I could have reached out to her, and my hand would have encountered her warm skin. But for some reason I found myself unable to touch her. I didn’t even want to reach out to her with words.
For the few moments immediately after I opened my eyes the next morning, when reality had yet to assume its usual concreteness, I lay with the quilt wrapped about me, absent-mindedly assessing the quality of the winter sunshine as it ﬁltered into the room through the white curtain. In the middle of this ﬁt of abstraction I happened to glance at the wall clock and jumped up the instant I saw the time, kicked the door open and hurried out of the room. My wife was in front of the fridge.
‘Are you crazy? Why didn’t you wake me up? What time is . . .’
Something squashed under my foot, stopping me in mid-sentence. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
She was crouching, still wearing her nightclothes, her dishevelled, tangled hair a shapeless mass around her face. Around her, the kitchen ﬂoor was covered with plastic bags and airtight containers, scattered all over so that there was nowhere I could put my feet without treading on them. Beef for shabu-shabu, belly pork, two sides of black beef shin, some squid in a vacuum-packed bag, sliced eel that my mother-in-law had sent us from the countryside ages ago, dried croaker tied with yellow string, unopened packs of frozen dumplings and endless bundles of unidentiﬁed stuff dragged from the depths of the fridge. There was a rustling sound; my wife was busy putting the things around her one by one into black rubbish bags. Eventually I lost control.
‘What the hell are you up to now?’ I shouted.
She kept on putting the parcels of meat into the rubbish bags, seemingly no more aware of my existence than she had been last night. Beef and pork, pieces of chicken, at least 200,000-won worth of saltwater eel.
‘Have you lost your mind? Why on earth are you throwing all this stuff out?’
I hurriedly stumbled my way through the plastic bags and grabbed her wrist, trying to prise the bags from her grip. Stunned to ﬁnd her ﬁercely tugging back against me, I almost faltered for a moment, but my outrage soon gave me the strength to overpower her. Massaging her reddened wrist, she spoke in the same ordinary, calm tone of voice she’d used before.
‘I had a dream.’
Those words again. Her expression as she looked at me was perfectly composed. Just then my mobile rang.
I started to fumble through the pockets of my coat, which I’d tossed onto the living room sofa the previous evening. Finally, in the last inside pocket, my ﬁngers closed around my recalcitrant phone.
‘I’m sorry. Something’s come up, an urgent family matter, so . . . I’m very sorry. I’ll be there as quickly as possible. No, I’m going to leave right now. It’s just . . . no, I couldn’t possibly have you do that. Please wait just a little longer. I’m very sorry. Yes, I really can’t talk right now . . .’
I ﬂipped my phone shut and dashed into the bathroom, where I shaved so hurriedly that I cut myself in two places.
‘Haven’t you even ironed my white shirt?’
There was no answer. I splashed water on myself and rummaged in the laundry basket, searching for yesterday’s shirt. Luckily it wasn’t too creased. Not once did my wife bother to peer out from the kitchen in the time it took me to get ready, slinging my tie round my neck like a scarf, pulling on my socks, and getting my notebook and wallet together. In the ﬁve years we’d been married this was the ﬁrst time I’d had to go to work without her handing me my things and seeing me off.
‘You’re insane! You’ve completely lost it.’
I crammed my feet into my recently purchased shoes, which were too narrow and pinched uncomfortably, threw open the front door and ran out. I checked whether the lift was going to go all the way up to the top ﬂoor, and then dashed down three ﬂights of stairs. Only once I’d managed to jump on the underground train as it was just about to leave did I have time to take in my appearance, reﬂected in the dark carriage window. I ran my ﬁngers through my hair, did up my tie, and attempted to smooth out the creases in my shirt. My wife’s unnaturally serene face, her incongruously ﬁrm voice, surfaced in my mind.
I had a dream – she’d said that twice now. Beyond the window, in the dark tunnel, her face ﬂitted by – her face, but unfamiliar, as though I was seeing it for the ﬁrst time. However, as I had thirty minutes in which to concoct an excuse for my client that would justify my lateness, as well as putting together a draft proposal for today’s meeting, there was no time for mulling over the strange behaviour of my even-stranger wife. Having said that, I told myself that somehow or other I had to leave the ofﬁce early today (never mind that in the several months since I’d switched to my new position there hadn’t been a single day where I’d got off before midnight), and steeled myself for a confrontation.
Dark woods. No people. The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet. This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now. Frightened. Cold. Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building. Straw matting ﬂapping limp across the door. Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside. A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin.
Somehow a way out. Running, running through the valley, then suddenly the woods open out. Trees thick with leaves, springtime’s green light. Families picnicking, little children running about, and that smell, that delicious smell. Almost painfully vivid. The babbling stream, people spreading out rush mats to sit on, snacking on kimbap. Barbecuing meat, the sounds of singing and happy laughter.
But the fear. My clothes still wet with blood. Hide, hide behind the trees. Crouch down, don’t let anybody see. My bloody hands. My bloody mouth. In that barn, what had I done? Pushed that red raw mass into my mouth, felt it squish against my gums, the roof of my mouth, slick with crimson blood.
Chewing on something that felt so real, but couldn’t have been, it couldn’t. My face, the look in my eyes . . . my face, undoubtedly, but never seen before. Or no, not mine, but so familiar. . . nothing makes sense. Familiar and yet not . . . that vivid, strange, horribly uncanny feeling.
On the dining table my wife had laid out lettuce and soybean paste, plain seaweed soup without the usual beef or clams, and kimchi.
‘What the hell? So all because of some ridiculous dream, you’ve gone and chucked out all the meat? Worth how much?’
I got up from my chair and opened the freezer. It was practically empty – nothing but miso powder, chilli powder, frozen fresh chillies, and a pack of minced garlic.
‘Just make me some fried eggs. I’m really tired today. I didn’t even get to have a proper lunch.’
‘I threw the eggs out as well.’
‘And I’ve given up milk too.’
‘This is unbelievable. You’re telling me not to eat meat?’
‘I couldn’t let those things stay in the fridge. It wouldn’t be right.’
How on earth could she be so self-centred? I stared at her lowered eyes, her expression of cool self-possession. The very idea that there should be this other side to her, one where she selﬁshly did as she pleased, was astonishing. Who would have thought she could be so unreasonable?
‘So you’re saying that from now on, there’ll be no meat in this house?’
‘Well, after all, you usually only eat breakfast at home. And I suppose you often have meat with your lunch and dinner, so . . . it’s not as if you’ll die if you go without meat just for one meal.’
Her reply was so methodical, it was as if she thought that this ridiculous decision of hers was something completely rational and appropriate.
‘Oh good, so that’s me sorted then. And what about you? You’re claiming that you’re not going to eat meat at all from now on?’ She nodded. ‘Oh, really? Until when?
‘I suppose . . . forever.’
I was lost for words, though at the same time I was aware that choosing a vegetarian diet wasn’t quite so rare as it had been in the past. People turn vegetarian for all sorts of reasons: to try and alter their genetic predisposition towards certain allergies, for example, or else because it’s seen as more environmentally friendly not to eat meat. Of course, Buddhist priests who have taken certain vows are morally obliged not to participate in the destruction of life, but surely not even impressionable young girls take it quite that far. As far as I was concerned, the only reasonable grounds for altering one’s eating habits were the desire to lose weight, an attempt to alleviate certain physical ailments, being possessed by an evil spirit, or having your sleep disturbed by indigestion. In any other case, it was nothing but sheer obstinacy for a wife to go against her husband’s wishes as mine had done.
If you’d said that my wife had always been faintly nauseated by meat, then I could have understood it, but in reality it was quite the opposite – ever since we’d got married she had proved herself a more than competent cook, and I’d always been impressed by her way with food. Tongs in one hand and a large pair of scissors in the other, she’d ﬂipped rib meat in a sizzling pan whilst snipping it into bite-sized pieces, her movements deft and practised. Her fragrant, caramelised deep-fried belly pork was achieved by marinating the meat in minced ginger and glutinous starch syrup. Her signature dish had been wafer-thin slices of beef seasoned with black pepper and sesame oil, then coated with sticky rice powder as generously as you would with rice cakes or pancakes, and dipped in bubbling shabu-shabu broth. She’d made bibimbap with bean sprouts, minced beef, and pre-soaked rice stir-fried in sesame oil. There had also been a thick chicken and duck soup with large chunks of potato, and a spicy broth packed full of tender clams and mussels, of which I could happily polish off three helpings in a single sitting.
What I was presented with now was a sorry excuse for a meal. Her chair pulled back at an angle, my wife spooned up some seaweed soup, which was quite clearly going to taste of water and nothing else. She balanced rice and soybean paste on a lettuce leaf, then bundled the wrap into her mouth and chewed it slowly.
I just couldn’t understand her. Only then did I realize: I really didn’t have a clue when it came to this woman.
‘Not eating?’ she asked absent-mindedly, for all the world like some middle-aged woman addressing her grown-up son. I sat in silence, steadfastly uninterested in this poor excuse for a meal, crunching on kimchi for what felt like an age.
Meet the Author
Han Kang was born in 1970 in South Korea. In 1993 she made her literary debut as a poet, and was first published as novelist in 1994. A participant of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Han has won the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Today's Young Artist Award, and the Manhae Literary Prize. She currently works as a professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts.
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Very tight prose, professional. A small book but strong and important. Deserved the Booker, best book I read this year. Andy McKissock
Powerful commentary about dutiful daughters emphatically waking up enrich this story about Yeong-Hye, (a woman who remains nameless for the first 30 pages of the book), and her sister, In-Hye - both treated as owned objects by their entitled father and husbands. Despite painful histories in a patriarchal culture, the sisters awaken from life-long, traumatic dissociation - and take a stand. Eleanor Cowan, author of : A History of a Pedophile's Wife
Wow, what can I say about this one except “wow.” The Vegetarian by Han Kang was everything that we love about Korean and Japanese literature and art—and that’s exactly what this work was: art. Here you will find what we have come to know, to love and to expect from authors in this genre who write in this vein: the vibrancy, the subtle magical realism, the commanding usage of words and the elusive, sinister nature that is unique to these works—all embedded within an established culture of history and mores that has survived and developed for millennia longer than most others. The Vegetarian read with a delicious ominousness that was as subtle as a shadow, like a breath at your neck. It was that subtly that made the read so taunt and disquieting, and there was a strange, magical realism to it that almost read like Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 (no shock there, as they both seem to have been influenced by Kafka). As a work of short literary form (it’s under 200 pages), it was unusual, among other reasons, in that it was told from three different perspectives with almost no perspective from the novel’s subject, Yeong-hye. We see how her vegetarianism, which later leads into a kind of manic catatonia, affects first her callous and at times sexually abusive husband, then her brother-in-law who becomes completely enthralled with her sexually because of her Mongolian mark, and her sister who is the last one standing when Yeong-hye’s psyche begins to peel away. In addition to the serious topics that The Vegetarian brushed up against: the effect of cultural mores on women, body image, conformism, familial ties and abuse, and, of course, mental illness that ultimately culminated in a way that I could never reveal without spoiling it for you—this was also a tale family dysfunction. It was a tale of familial ties that were severed painfully, of violent confrontations and realizations, of physical and emotional starvation, and a parable about the woman, the vegetarian, at the center of it all. The Vegetarian was sensual, and it meandered toward its climax in a way that was both unsettling and prophetic. It was allegory elevated to the highest level of art, raised to the level of surrealism. The change in tenses and POVs worked well. And even this technique, this simple process of sentence-writing that we learn in grade school, was elevated: the tenses of sentences shifted noticeably, particularly the closer that it came to dénouement, a jolting but brilliant allusion to this decent into mental illness and personal violence, which added to the mystical element of this novel. Han Kang produced a work, his first to be seen here in the U.S., that was so unhinged, so mystifying, that at times it would slither from your grasp. I had to sit and reflect on several of the passages for a few minutes—not because they were ill-written, but because they were both profound and often just outside of my immediate mental grasp, and that was a wonderful thing. It was an effect that I look for in modern-day writing—that disquietingly ungraspable moment. The Vegetarian was unconventional. It broke away from the molds that we find ourselves encumbered in with typical fiction. Here you will not find the typical “rising action, climax, falling action” formula that we’ve become so... To read the full review, go to The Navi Review at www.thenavireview.com, view my "full review section on Goodreads, and/or follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview
My God this is a difficult book. It's about the story of a woman in her 20s who decides one day after having a dream to become a vegetarian and how her husband, brother - in - law and her sister are affected by her decision. The first section of the book, told from the husband's point of view is the most difficult section to read. And it is in this section that we get an understanding of what this young woman is going through. Understanding early on what is affecting this young woman we better understand the horror of her life. In the second section, perhaps the most beautiful one of the book, her brother - in - law, who is an artist, uses her to create a video piece. It involves painting flowers over her body and a male's body and then seeing the two come together. But it is during this project when she seems so happy, that she is put into a situation that puts her into a mental hospital. The third section is told from her sister's point of view. It's hard not to feel for the sister, care giving to a younger sister and a sick child, and not wanting to rest and care for herself. It's easy to imagine the sister may herself have a breakdown. If you read this book, buy two copies and hand one to a friend. You will find that you want to talk to someone after reading this book.
*** I received an ARC for an honest review 02/11/2016*** My review of "The Vegetarian" by Han Kang - Hardback Edition for BFB When I read the description for this book I was thrilled! I could not wait to read such an interesting novel premise written and translated from the Korean culture. The beautiful, intricate art work of flowers and roots hidden in the shape of a woman combined with a bright red background makes the book a definite eye catcher, and was fantastically done. The Vegetarian starts simply enough. A woman, Yeong-hye, chooses to become a vegetarian and her family abhors her decision. The first part of the book is told by her husband. He explains that there is nothing really special with his wife, Yeong-hye. She is plain looking with neither long nor short hair. Her future husband felt no special attraction to her either before or after they were married. She became a completely ordinary wife, and their life was really nondescript. In the story line, it is a dream that changes her life. A dream so graphic and bloody that it turns her away from all meat and all animal products. For her husband, it’s not a plant based, vegetarian diet that she is living, but a plant-like life, grounded and rooted in the firmness of her resolution. The rest of her family becomes involved, demonstrating just how male dominated Korea's culture remains, and as one would predict, things spiral out of control. The second part is told by her brother-in-law and delves deeper into Yeong-hye's obsession with being a part of nature, and how . The final part is told by her sister, and gives subtle clues as to how things may have started for them all. Each section reflects a moment in time and a different look at Yeong-hye, where you have to really search to understand where you are in time, as well as how it is related to the story plot around it. Yeong-hye is the central character of the story line, however she tells very little of her own story, and mostly refuses to speak at all throughout the journey. This story invoked a lot of different emotions in me, and I still am haunted by some of the images that were so intricately detailed in the book.(**I don't want to give any spoilers away , however this book contains both images that could be triggering as well as tough for some readers**) You could make an argument that Yeong-hye is flat and one-dimensional, and perhaps that was the author wanted to leave her as, flat and overlooked. She does ever truly tell her story. We catch glimpses into her world through those around her, but the was she is portrayed through the eyes of the other characters in the story line. For me, this made some of the story disjointed, and made it a difficult to unravel each of their personal issues, prejudices, and obsessions that leaves you to imagine how she would make it through each time jump you are subjected to as the chapters changed. Overall, this was a very well done story that stays with you long after you finish. **Again no spoilers, however there is one scene that may be extremely tough on some readers, and even I who am rarely shocked, had to take a break and walk away from that powerful scene.** I would recommend this as a "you won't die if you miss it, however it's a great cultural experience that as a reader you get to be immersed in. ***Again, I received an ARC in exchange for an honest review of this publication*** Thanks for taking the time to read my review. May you find YOUR next adventure
The writing is brilliant but I can't take the he violence. No!