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Macabre Booker-Prize treat

Jul 1, 2016 5:50 AM

The Vegetarian

By Han Kang

Translated from Korean by Deborah Smith

Published by Portobello Books

183 pages, S$17 (paperback)

Rating: A-

Reviewed by Helmi Yusof

SOME of the most macabre books in the history of literature have the most commonplace titles: Kiss Kiss by Roald Dahl, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Rosemary's Baby by Ira Levin, 1984 by George Orwell.

The new Booker Prize winner by South Korean writer Han Kang has an even more innocuous title: The Vegetarian. But it isn't about a vegetarian and why you should become one. It is literally about a woman who wants to become a vegetable - that's right, a vegetable.

Now you see why the slim 183-page novel by a relatively unknown Korean writer might have beaten heavyweights Orhan Pamuk and Elena Ferrante to the publishing world's biggest prize.

The strange plot alone would have piqued your attention. And when you read the novel and note its charms - the sharpness and precision of the prose, the wild yet utterly believable twists - you would have rooted for Han to win too.

The Vegetarian centres on Yeong-hye, an ordinary married woman living in Korea who suddenly decides to become a vegetarian. But her avoidance of meat is just the start of her general rejection of human society. When those around her refuse to accept her conduct and decision, it sets off a chain of irreversible disasters.

The story isn't told through her eyes but by the people around her - her husband, her sister and her brother-in-law. You don't entirely know why Yeong-hye wants to be first a vegetarian, then a vegetable. But you believe every step of her journey towards becoming one.

Han, who works as a creative writing teacher in South Korea, is an extraordinary writer. It's rare to read someone who can conjure up incredibly vivid, sensual scenes with such economy and immediacy.

Her understanding of human longing, sexuality and violence is profound. But unlike other writers, she refrains from showing off, giving just enough characterisation to propel the story to the next level.

Yet, the wild plot and unusual characters do not detract from the novel's topical theme of human brutality towards animals and one another. In a sense, the novel owes its origins to Franz Kafka's 1915 novella Metamorphosis. Published exactly 100 years before Han's novel appeared in its English translation, Metamorphosis narrates the sudden transformation of a young man into a giant insect and its impact on his family.

Han's The Vegetarian feels like a Metamorphosis for contemporary times, echoing themes such as social alienation and the general limits of human sympathy for people who are radically different. The Vegetarian first makes a mockery of societal conventions, then sickens you with even deeper insights into human fallibility.