Book of the month: Han Kang

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Some books follow you around. At least, that has been my experience this month with The Vegetarian by the South Korean novelist Han Kang. No sooner had I resolved to read it after seeing a tweet about it from Gary Perry, assistant head of fiction at Foyles, than it seemed to be popping up everywhere.

When I went into the Guardian newspaper’s offices to record a podcast about my forthcoming book, it cropped up in conversation with the literary editor Claire Armitstead. Next, I saw that Chad Post, editor of Three Percent, had picked it out as one of the texts for his translation students at Rochester University to discuss this semester.

Then, before I knew it, an enthusiastic tweet of my own somehow led to an invitation to the London launch. And so last week, there I was in the London Review Bookshop, listening to Han Kang (speaking through an interpreter) and her translator Deborah Smith discuss the novel with Deborah Levy, author of the Man Booker prize-shortlisted novel Swimming Home.

It’s not surprising that The Vegetarian has captured so many people’s imaginations. The premise alone is bound to intrigue: centring on a hitherto apparently unremarkable woman, Yeong-hye, the narrative presents the fallout from her abrupt decision to reject meat – and with it the food culture she has grown up with – after she has a violent dream. As her eating becomes more and more restricted and her body shrinks and weakens, the cracks in her relationships deepen, allowing glimpses of the traumas, assumptions and impossible dreams that lie beneath.

The novel’s tone is one of its great strengths. Indeed, despite the weightiness of the subject matter, the opening pages have a levity and dry wit as Yeong-hye’s husband sets the scene of his marriage to ‘the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world’. This lightness makes the shock all the greater when the husband and his in-laws round on Yeong-hye, attempting to overcome her resistance and act upon her with violence that they find frighteningly easy to justify.

Han’s (and Smith’s) beautifully modulated sentences weave their way through a series of increasingly outlandish, alarming and yet alluring images as the narrative barrels further and further away from the apparent normality of the outset. From fleeting tropes, such as the idea of a wound consuming an entire body, to the monstrous yet exquisite flower-copulation video created by Yeong-hye’s video artist brother-in-law as a way of enacting his own particular ambitions for her body, the text astonishes and challenges the reader.

As in most ambitious works, the writing takes risks that occasionally threaten to destabilise it. At the start of each of the novel’s three sections – which are narrated by a different family member, although never the title character herself – it is as though the narrative is thrown up into the air until we deduce whose gaze we have borrowed and everything falls into place once more. Similarly, a few of the flashbacks emerge so subtly out of the texture of events that it is sometimes difficult to locate yourself – a technique that adds to the dreamlike quality of much of the writing but can distance the reader from the narrative too.

Overall, though, the effect is utterly absorbing. Poetic, shocking and thought-provoking, this is a book that forces us to confront some of the darkest realities of the human experience: the violence with which we are forced to be complicit simply through the fact of our existence, the way we manipulate and objectify others, and our ability to become inured to horror and abuse. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith (Portobello Books, 2015)