Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

"The vegetarian" by Han Kang (Portobello Books, 2015)

Translated by Deborah Smith. Set in South Korea. From the husband's PoV we learn about his demure wife's adoption of vegetarianism. She blames her disgust of food on a dream. He thinks himself unlucky - her sister's more buxom and runs her own company, leaving her husband to loaf about doing art though they have a little boy. Her father slaps her (as he did when she was little) and tries to force meat down her. She slits her wrists as her family watches.

Section 2 is from the PoV of her brother-in-law, the video artist. It's a few months after the suicide attempt. He's got an idea for a work. He asks Yeong-hye, him sister-in-law to model for him. He videos as he body-paints flowers all over her. In another session he body-paints a male artist friend and gets them to pose intimately together. His wife, In-hye, catches him and Yeong-hye sleeping together and calls psychiatric nurses.

In section 3, a few months later, it's In-hye's PoV. Her husband has left her. She's visiting her sister in hospital as she does each Wednesday. The doctor tells her that 15-20% of anorexia nervosa patients starve themselves to death. Yeong-hye thinks she's turning into a tree, needing only water and starlight. Soon words and thoughts will disappear. The book ends with In-hye in an ambulance with Yeong-hye, on the way to A&E.

Other review

  • Daniel Hahn (Across the three parts, we are pressed up against a society’s most inflexible structures – expectations of behaviour, the workings of institutions – and we watch them fail one by one. The novel repeatedly shows the frictions between huge passion and chilling detachment ... Deborah Smith’s translation moving between the baffled irritation of Mr Cheong’s first-person narration in part one, the measured prose of In-hye’s world, the dense and bloody narrative of Yeong-hye’s dreams, and seductive descriptions of living bodies painted with flowers, in states of transformation or wasting away. )
  • Porochista Khakpour (Han’s novella-in-three-parts zigzags between domestic thriller, transformation parable and arborphiliac meditation ... We get brief italicized sequences that describe Yeong-hye’s thoughts, which range from diarylike internal monologues to something approaching a post-language state. ... Han’s glorious treatments of agency, personal choice, submission and subversion find form in the parable.)
  • Ella Holden (What Kang has produced here is a novel that envisions familial conflict within the broader question of human identity, questioning the proximity of mankind to our environment, and the significance of the human body as an object of art)

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