I reviewed this book on the ABC radio program ‘Overnights’ in November 2016, contact me if you’d like to hear the full review!
This succinct novel is as poetic as it is disturbing. It shows how one person’s, seemingly simple, personal choice can be a catalyst for a family’s unravelling.
The book revolves around Yeong-Hye, an ordinary wife living in South Korea who’s husband describes her as, “completely unremarkable in every way”. The couple potter along with their lives, neither unhappy but neither driven by great hopes or dreams either. That is until one night Yeong-Hye’s husband finds her in the kitchen, in a disorientated state, throwing out all the meat from the fridge and declaring that she has become a vegetarian.
In a country where societal norms are strictly obeyed and where meat is gorged on habitually, Yeong-Hye’s decision is seen as a shocking act of disobedience. Her only explanation being, “I had a dream”. The book is seperated into three parts. Part one, is from Yeong-Hye’s husband’s perspective and shows the family and Yeong-Hye’s self coming to terms with her decision. Throughout this part, the reader gets snippets of Yeong-Hye’s dream that night and even though it reads like a poem, it shows of a bloody and violent provocation with an unknown creature. Frankly, it’s graphic enough to shock anyone awake.
Part two is told from the brother-in-laws perspective who is a struggling artist with a sudden obsession with Yeong-Hye’s body months after her turn to vegetarianism. This aspect of the book is slight unnerving with the brother-in-laws artistic intentions becoming perverse and Yeong-Hye being completly unfazed by his requests. Part three is the perspective of Yeong-Hye’s older sister In-hye, as she tries to pick up the pieces of Yeong-Hye’s spiral into what she thinks is a psychosis. This part highlights the strong Korean values of family unity and older sibling responsibility. Han Kang covers A LOT in such a short space of time. For me, this is the mark of a good writer. When you’re carried along with the story swiftly but without feeling rushed. This is Han Kang’s first novel to be translated into English and has been very well received! It won The Man Booker International Prize for 2016.
In 2014 at the London Book Fair had Korea as a guest of honour this was in the hope of tempting English-language publishers to seek out more contemporary Korean novelists.
A wonderful read for anyone who enjoys translated novels, Korea or simply who wants to delve into a culture so removed from their own. Highly recommended!