14 Dec / The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith [in Library Journal]
Han Kang, a South Korean writing professor with Iowa Writers Workshop training, makes her English-translation debut with this spare, spectacular novel, in which a multigenerational, seemingly traditional Seoul family implodes.
Yeong-hye, the youngest of three adult children, repeatedly announces “I had a dream,” violent, bloody, and surreal, which causes her to stop eating meat; eventually, she eschews everything but water. Her sudden change in diet (vegetarianism remains uncommon in Korea) goes far beyond her own physical metamorphosis, as documented in three distinct sections by her self-absorbed businessman husband, her obsessive video artist brother-in-law, and her distraught shop-owner older sister. While Yeong-hye remains the crux of the disturbing narrative, her voice is rarely heard. Instead, she’s ignored, interpreted, spoken over, and silenced to devastating effect.
Verdict: In a culture in which mental illness is met too often with dismissal or denial, Han’s novel is sure to draw both scrutiny and applause, in no small part owing to London-based Smith’s seamless translation. Family dysfunction amid cultural suffocation is presented with elegant precision, transforming readers into complicit voyeurs. Fans of authors as diverse as Mary Karr and Haruki Murakami won’t be able to turn away.
Published: 2016 (United States)