When I started reading this extraordinary book by Han Kang I was slightly worried because it was literally covered in reviews calling it strange, shocking, extreme, disturbing and violent. Also there was a severed wing on the cover, clearly belonging to some bird who is now missing a wing, something that is alarmingly incoherent with the title, The Vegetarian. I tried to concentrate on the leaf-like purple background, which I found slightly reassuring for reasons I was yet to discover.
I have to admit that mostly I decided to read this book because the 2018 Winter Olympics will be in South Korea and I am a total ignorant about South Korea, so I really need to catch up. For example I neglected the fashionable Korean beauty products everybody was talking about last year. 10-step skincare routines? Not for me. I probably know more about North Korea since I read Pyongyang by Guy Delisle recently (but did not particularly enjoy it because me and Delisle apparently don’t share the same sense of humour).
As far as I know, The Vegetarian is not translated into Italian yet, but luckily we do have a magnificent English version, by Deborah Smith (also in the photo below), and it comes with a deserved Man Booker Prize.
Let me say that this novel is not strange etc. at all. You know what I do find strange, shocking, extreme, disturbing and violent, and dreadfully so? Most people in everyday life. Therefore to me The Vegetarian was a breath of fresh air. A lyrical, powerful, honest breath of fresh air, I even engaged in slow reading to make it last longer.
It’s also very touching, because the first part of the story is narrated from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s (the protagonist) husband who does not understand her at all (or life in general, to be honest), then the second part is from the point of view of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, who kind of understands her through intuition and desire but is eventually overwhelmed, while the third and last part is from the viewpoint of her sister, who comes to a deep understanding not only of Yeong-hye, but also of herself.