Really having a hard time finding something to read right now – A Naked Singularity was so good and the political news right now is so bad – getting a focus on any book is really hard. But finally I thought this short novel might do the trick. It won the Man Booker International prize for 2016 and I’ve had it on my wish list since then.
Okay – it took me out of my Trump-trauma, but although it was totally worth is, it does get pretty graphic and horrific.
by Han Kang
2007 in South Korea/ 2015 in English – 208 pages
read by Janet Song, Stephen Park 5h 14m
rating – 9 / contemp fiction
Han Kang wastes no time cutting right to the chase. The opening chapter is told by two people the first of whom is Mr Cheong. He is the husband of Yeong-hye, a woman who has decided to be a full vegetarian on account of a dream. He witnesses his wife change from a non-descript South Korean housewife and a good cook into someone who does not conform to what he expects.
A secondary narrator in Part 1 is Mr Chang’s wife who describes the dream, some background material, and her own physical responses. I think these are her thoughts although some of them are directed toward him. She’s determined and a bit over-wrought.
Part 2 takes place a couple years later and is from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, her sister’s husband. He’s an artist who is striving for more artistic freedom and he is fascinated by Yeong-hye.
Part 3 is told with the point of view of In-hye. Yeong-hye’s elder sister, and again is some time later.
The story is told using language as slender as Yeong-hye becomes – there is no extra padding, no adjectives or other flourishes. The characters also have a flat aspect – they often seem without emotion. They have enough to make them human, but they’re definitely distanced and the story has a surrealistic effect all of which puts me in mind of the novels of Haruki Murakami although in many other ways it’s not at Murakami at all.
At first the characters, except Yeong-hye, seem to be overly concerned with what others think. They are Koreans and conformity and success mean everything. . The tension builds around what Yeong-hei will do next and why is she doing these things. There’s some symbolism or something in there I don’t think I quite understood.
********** SPOILER! ***********
About themes – well – mostly mental illness I suppose and what it is and what it does to families who are determined to conform to social conventions. Maybe it also deals with what too many social conventions do to people. And then there’s some concern with what artists do with the subject of mental illness and to people with that. (What society does to people with mental illnesses!) Another idea revolves around whether people should really have the freedom to do what pleases them even if they are considered mentally ill.
Fwiw, a Mongolian mark is a blue -grey birthmark.
Words Without Borders: http://www.wordswithoutborders.org/book-review/han-kangs-the-vegetarian