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Art and Culture

Likely Stories: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

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Compelling story of a woman suffering from anorexia, and the cultural struggles she faces.

I’m Jim McKeown, welcome to Likely Stories, a weekly review of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and biographies.

The Man Booker International Prize awarded biennially is an addendum to the Man Booker Prize, my favorite literary award.  Han Kang has won the prize given for fiction in translation. 

The Vegetarian is a harrowing story of a young woman’s journey away from her husband, her family by rejecting most of the expected customs of Korea.  The story is divided into three parts.  Part one focuses on Yeong-hye, the wife of Mr. Cheong.  She decides to become a vegetarian, and tosses in the garbage a substantial amount of meat, poultry, and fish.  In Part Two, her husband divorces her, and her sister’s husband – an artist struggling to find his way in the art world – convinces her to model for him.  In-hye finds her husband with Yeong-hye, and she divorces him.  Part three involves In-hye’s futile attempt to rescue her sister. 

This tale of a young woman suffering from anorexia and her struggle against the strict traditions of her family, will fascinate, while the horrifying nature of the prose is absorbing.  I am only slightly familiar with Korean customs and family dynamics, which seem strange – to say the least – in our more enlightened attitude toward women’s rights which are also human rights.  Saving face is an important element of the story.  Mr. Cheong describes his wife when Kang writes, “It wasn’t as though she had shapely breasts which might suit the ‘no-bra look.’  I would have preferred her to go around wearing one that was thickly padded, so that I could save face in front of my acquaintances” (13).  Later, the husband says, “I’d always liked my wife’s earthy vitality, the way she would catch cockroaches by smacking them with the palm of her hand.  She really had been the most ordinary woman in the world” (26).  Mr. Cheong also expects his wife to keep “quiet; after all, hadn’t women traditionally been expected to be demure and restrained?” (28).  Not since the 60s here in the United States, Mr. Cheong.

Numerous italicized passages reveal the struggle of In-Hye.  Kang writes, Dark woods.  No people.  The sharp-pointed leaves on the trees, my torn feet.  This place, almost remembered, but I’m lost now.  Frightened. Cold.  Across the frozen ravine, a red barn-like building.  Straw matting flapping limp across the door.  Roll it up and I’m inside, it’s inside.  A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down.  Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit.  Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked onto my skin. // Somehow a way out.  Running, running through the valley, then suddenly the woods open out.  Trees thick with leaves, springtime’s green light.  Families picnicking, […]  and that smell, that delicious smell.  Almost painfully vivid.  […]  Barbecuing meat, the sounds of singing and happy laughter” (19-20).  This spell-binding passage -- early in her rejection of meat -- seems part dream, part nightmare, and part hallucinatory.  I could not imagine where Han Kang’s prize-winning novel, The Vegetarian, tale was headed.  5 stars.

Likely Stories is a production of KWBU.  I’m Jim McKeown.  You can read more at RabbitReaderBlog.com.  Join me again next time for Likely Stories, and happy reading!