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[Saturday Reads] Murderous Dreams and A Descent Into Self-Annihilation in a multi-award-winning novel from South Korea

"The Vegetarian" by Han Kang

Myra here.

Every Saturday we hope to share with you our thoughts on reading and books. We thought that it would be good practice to reflect on our reading lives and our thoughts about reading in general. While on occasion, we would feature a few books in keeping with this, there would be a few posts where we will just write about our thoughts on read-alouds, libraries, reading journals, upcoming literary conferences, books that we are excited about, and just book love miscellany in general.

I have been meaning to read and feature this book for quite awhile now, but I thought that our current reading theme on crime and thriller, murder and mystery would be the best time as any to finally read it and feature it here.

Plus, it fits our literary voyage around the world, with this novel finally leading me to South Korea.

The Vegetarian

Written by: Han Kang
Published by: Hogarth (2016)
ISBN: 0553448188 (ISBN13: 9780553448184) Literary Awards: Internationaler Literaturpreis – Haus der Kulturen der Welt Nominee for Ki-Hyang Lee (2017), PEN Translation Prize Nominee for Deborah Smith (2017), Man Booker International Prize (2016), Frankfurt Book Fair LiBeraturpreis Nominee (2017). Review copy provided by Pansing. Book quotes laid out via Typorama.

It took me just one weekend to read and finish this novel. While I expected something harrowing, based on reviews and feedback I have read from a few friends, I was not prepared for the gradual and inevitable unraveling of the main character: the staid, common-place, perfectly ordinary married woman, who has decided to turn vegetarian.

In keeping with my expectations, she made for a completely ordinary wife who went about things without any distasteful frivolousness.

I also found it interesting that while the main title refers to the one individual that propels the narrative forward, the vegetarian herself, Yeong-Hye, her voice isn’t really heard, except in dream-like snapshots here and there, in italicized whispers, nightmarish murmurs interspersed throughout the book, similar to the one below.

The novel is segmented into three parts: the first one is written in the voice of the vegetarian’s husband, Mr. Cheong, whom I found to be completely oblivious, insensitive, and downright insufferable. I found it unsurprising that Yeong-Hye would completely spiral into nothingness with the prospect of living with this man for the rest of her life to look forward to.

The second part of the book is entitled Mongolian Mark, written from the perspective of the vegetarian’s brother-in-law, a totally depraved, self-absorbed, mediocre-of-an-artist who became singularly obsessed with Yeong-Hye’s mongolian mark, that all forms of civility (not to mention the boundaries of what constitutes morality) have been forgotten or casually dismissed entirely. To say that the man has taken advantage of Yeong-Hye’s numb descent into madness is an understatement, he sees it in her eyes, for one:

The third part of the book is written from the perspective of Yeong-Hye’s sister, In-hye, the one character with whom I felt some measure of sympathy and connection, and the only remaining member of the family who has stood by Yeong-Hye and supported her, as she deteriorated physically and mentally into an almost vegetative state.

Even while all this is going through In-Hye’s consciousness, she remained steadfast in caring for her sister, notwithstanding her own emerging realizations about who she is and what her life had been, thus far:

As I have written in my review on Litsy: Erotic and disturbing, Han Kang delves deeply into madness, the unknowability of one’s mind, and the illusion of ownership of one’s body against a cacophony of societal expectations, parental/domestic abuse, and the various forms of violence forced upon females by virtue of their gender. The reader will also need to be somewhat welcoming to a dark state of mind, as it can be quite brutal in some parts – lyrical and insightful, yes, but it takes the reader into a darkness with hardly any light, and not redemptive, either; just a gradual but inevitable decline into derangement and self-annihilation.

#LitWorld2018GB Update: 42 (of expected 40): South Korea

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Myra is a Teacher Educator and a registered clinical psychologist based in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates. Prior to moving to the Middle East, she lived for eleven years in Singapore serving as a teacher educator. She has edited five books on rediscovering children’s literature in Asia (with a focus on the Philippines, Malaysia, India, China, Japan) as part of the proceedings for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content where she served as the Chair of the Programme Committee for the Asian Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference from 2011 until 2019. While she is an academic by day, she is a closet poet and a book hunter at heart. When she is not reading or writing about books or planning her next reads, she is hoping desperately to smash that shuttlecock to smithereens because Badminton Is Life (still looking for badminton courts here at UAE - suggestions are most welcome).

2 comments on “[Saturday Reads] Murderous Dreams and A Descent Into Self-Annihilation in a multi-award-winning novel from South Korea

  1. Wow. This book sounds very draining, but in the good way that books can leave you after reading them. It seems like a fascinating story, one that makes the mind stretch.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: [Saturday Reads] Round Up of My Literary Journey and My Best in Books Across Quarterly Reading Themes – Gathering Books

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