The Vegetarian

A Novel

Han Kang

Published: 5 November 2015
Paperback, B Format
129x198mm, 160 pages
ISBN: 9781846276033
£8.99

Translated by Deborah Smith

Overview

Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more 'plant-like' existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye's decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister's husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming - impossibly, ecstatically - a tree.

Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.


About the author

Image of Han Kang

Han Kang was born in Gwangju, South Korea, and moved to Seoul at the age of ten. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University. Her writing has won the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Today's Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. The Vegetarian, her first novel to be translated into English, was published by Portobello Books in 2015 and won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. She is also the author of Human Acts (Portobello, 2016) and The White Book (Portobello, forthcoming 2017). She is based in Seoul. More about the author


Reviews

‘[The Vegetarian] is understated even in its most fevered, violent moments. It has a surreal and spellbinding quality. Enthralling’ Arifa Akbar

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Reviews

‘[A] heady, unsettling novel... Kang writes in a coolly unsentimental style, and achieves a delicate balance of restraint and passion in a story pulsing with desire, betrayal and destruction. Haunting’ Mireille Juchau

‘[An] engrossing read which takes you deep into the fascinating and complex world of another culture, South Korea. The harrowing but beautifully told story of a woman who would not conform.’ Top ten books chart

‘[An] unsettling novel... This spare and elegant translation renders the original Korean in pointed and vivid English, preserving Han's exploration of whether true innocence is possible in a vicious and bloody world’ The Ten Best Books of 2016

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

The Vegetarian is hypnotically strange, sad, beautiful and compelling. I liked it immensely’ Nathan Filer, author

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

‘A fine novel’ David Hebblethwaite

‘A haunting, hypnotic read, Han Kang's novel is a bold example of what world literature has to offer us here in Britain.’ Erica Wagner

‘A strange, painfully tender exploration of the brutality of desire indulged and the fatality of desire ignored... Exquisite’ Eimear McBride, Baileys Women's Prize-winning author

‘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, author

‘A transformative fable about desire, frustration and individual will’ Best Books of 2015

‘A truly memorable novel [with] visceral and unfaltering writing that is innately uneasy to read [...] Han Kang expertly structures the novel around the three long chapters that explore the voices around Yeong-Hye. Though the narrative is never hers, Yeong-Hye remains the focus of the novel throughout. Each chapter features dream sequences which blur the everyday and ethereal and provide the reader with rich and dynamic prose. The fact that these sequences work so well in The Vegetarian is a huge credit to the work of Deborah Smith who achieves a translation that is wonderfully readable in English whilst at the same time profoundly different to English language novels.’

‘A violent, magical and surreal tale... Unforgettable’ Fiona Wilson, Best Books of 2016

‘An irresistibly weird and sensuous story’ Daniel Hahn, Books of the Year

‘At once dreamy and nightmarish, a beautiful horror and easily one of the best books I've read in years.’ Lisa McInerney

‘Brutal and beautiful - the translation alone is a work of art - this is a book for anyone who believes that the novel's job is to turn its reader inside out’ Eimear McBride, ‘Summer Read’

‘Considering this book just as a story about a vegetarian is a mistake. It is rather a meticulously constructed and haunting novel. Right at the moment you turn the last page, you'll feel grateful for your ordinary life’ Kyung-Sook Shin, Man Asian Literary Prize-winning author

‘Disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is translated by Deborah Smith into poetic yet matter-of-fact prose’ Richard Eves

‘Elegantly translated into bone-spare English by Deborah Smith... The Vegetarian whispers so clearly, it can be heard across the room, insistently and with devastating, quiet violence’ Joanna Walsh

‘Entrancing and tense... the writing is spare and haunting... 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)

‘Fascinating and powerful. A really engrossing read’

‘Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others.’

‘Han Kang's vivid and at times violent storytelling will wake up even the most jaded of literary palates’

‘I loved this haunting [novel]’ Lionel Shriver, Best Books of 2016

‘Immediately absorbing...It's the kind of story where every word matters’ Lesley McDowell

‘In The Vegetarian Han Kang ruthlessly targets South Korea's social codes, using the story of a simple, personal rebellion to expose a callous patriarchy. Sharply ironic’ Ruairi Casey

‘Intriguing’ Charlotte Mendelson, summer books round up

‘It's a bracing, visceral, system-shocking addition to the Anglophone reader's diet. It is sensual, provocative and violent, ripe with potent images, startling colours and disturbing questions. Sentence by sentence, The Vegetarian is an extraordinary experience. [It] will be hard to beat’ Daniel Hahn

‘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’

‘Kang has crafted a wounding, unsettling book. The fantastical imagery of plants, trees and flowers reinforce Yeong-hye's purity. The book is a journey in trying to understand her and the reactions she inspires in others... Han Kang's great achievement is crafting a small tale from which great things grow’

‘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

‘No blurb that I have read for this book does it justice. That's because the premise is peculiar; an unremarkable man meets an unremarkable woman and they get married. Their lives are ordinary, until one day she has a dream that compels her to become a vegetarian. At which point the tale goes nuclear.’ Summer books round up

‘One of the most erotic literary novels of the season... The Vegetarian has been praised on both sides of the Atlantic as strange visionary and transgressive.’

‘Paradoxically, both enlightening and incomprehensible. It is a strange book, with overtones of Kafka, and a plot that has no resolution. And yet it continues its reader, turning the seeming banality of a woman's decision not to eat meat into a surreal psychological odyssey’ Xenobe Purves

‘Poetic and beguiling, and translated with tremendous elegance, The Vegetarian exhilarates and disturbs’ Chloe Aridjis, author

‘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... [It] 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. Mind-blowing’ Eileen Battersby

‘Split into three parts, Kang's narrative dances tantalisingly around her central character, the too-often silent Yeong-hye... As a character she appears the twisted product of the multitude of watchful eyes, the switching preoccupations, and the opinions of those around her. She herself remains mysteriously elusive, her own thoughts only ever revealed in sparing flashes interspersed throughout the narrative... Teetering between explanations both 'ordinary' and 'extra-ordinary', she leaves no room for certainty, constantly teasing the reader, and the ambiguity that remains both torments and delights. This masterpiece of Korean fiction is finally made available to English readers in Deborah Smith's achingly elegant prose, the first of Han Kang's novels to be translated. Thankfully I am certain it will not be the last.’ Thea Hawlin

‘Subtle, provocative... a beautiful book’ Chad W Post

‘The winner of the 2016 Man International Booker Prize is an unsettling, sensual and surreal novel about a dutiful wife who rebels against her stultifying marriage.’

‘This compact, exquisite and disturbing book will linger long in the minds, and maybe the dreams, of its readers.’ Boyd Tonkin, chair of judges for Man Booker International Prize 2016

‘This off-kilter novel from Korea is simultaneously beautiful and sinister’

‘This short novel is one of the most startling I have read. Kang is well served by Deborah Smith's subtle translation in this disturbing book’ Julia Pascal

‘This slim novel from South Korea is one of the most erotic literary novels of the season’ Best Books of 2016

‘Unsettling... [a] strange and ethereal fable, rendered stranger still by the cool precision of the prose’ Peter Brown

‘Visceral’ Best Books of 2016

‘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

‘While the narrative exposes the plight of women in a male-dominated Korean society, it also takes a broader, philosophical look at suffering and grief, loneliness and the death of hope. It explores the brutal power shifts in relationships. On all levels, artistic and moral, it is a remarkable meditation with universal resonance. At its heart is the individual trying, and failing, to live. Deborah Smith's translation, magnificently alert to the sensitive, sophisticated nuances and tonal variations, can only be described as inspired.’ Eileen Battersby





 
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