It all seems so simple. Young, childless Yeong-hye decides to renounce meat. Her husband, the narrator of the first part of this mind-blowing novel from the South Korean writer Han Kang (a daughter of novelist Han Seung-won), barely prepares the reader for what is to follow.
There are hints. In a couple of sentences the narrator makes clear his nature. Dismissive of his wife, describing her as completely unremarkable in every way – “there was no reason for the two of us not to get married” – he at least admits that he has never sought a challenge. He is a bully, uninterested in being tested by beauty or intelligence, and his quiet wife suits him.
Initially it seems almost funny, particularly when he recalls the night she announces that she has had a dream. Those are her only words: “I had a dream.” He is clearly the last person who could comprehend the notion of dreaming.
The next morning the situation appears to become serious,as far as he is concerned. Late for work because Yeong-hye didn’t wake him, he dashes into the kitchen, where he finds her, still in her nightclothes, crouching in the middle of a mess.
“Around her, the kitchen floor was covered in plastic bags and airtight containers, scattered all over so that there was nowhere I could put my feet without treading on them. Beef for shabu-shabu, belly pork, two sides of black beef shin, some squid in a vacuum-packed bag, sliced eel that my mother-in-law had sent us from the countryside . . . ”
Yeong-hye is reasonable, however. Although she will no longer prepare meat dishes for him, she does point out that he usually dines out anyway.
Han skilfully builds the story. Becoming a vegetarian is a personal decision. Not all of us make public statements about it. The young woman in this novel is not making a protest. But in South Korea, where meat is very much the staple of every meal, vegetarianism amounts to rejecting one’s culture.
Yeong-hye is never more than “my wife” in a narrative offered by a cold, detached husband. His tone is as impersonal as a police report. To him she is no more than an annoying possession. It is shocking. But worse is to follow. The young woman grows thin; her husband says she looked like a hospital patient. There is no remorse, no sympathy. He is simply providing information.
Then there is an embarrassing supper with his boss. Yeong-hye’s refusal to eat meat causes a discussion that culminates in someone, probably the boss, declaring: “Meat-eating is a fundamental human instinct, which means vegetarianism goes against human nature, right?” The narrator wants to die.
It is as if the narrator, in chilly hindsight, is attempting to make sense of what was to happen: “I sometimes told myself that, even though the woman I was living with was a little odd, nothing particularly bad would come of it. I thought I could get by perfectly well just thinking of her as a stranger, or no, as a sister, or even a maid, someone who puts food on the table and keeps the house in good order.”
He goes on to describe how, as he raped her one night, he noticed “a surprisingly strong resistance”. At a family get-together the topic is Yeong-hye’s eating habits. Her father takes over. “In an instant, his flat palm cleaved the empty space. My wife cupped her cheek in her hand.”
The old man then forces a piece of meat into his daughter’s mouth: “My father-in-law mashed the pork to a pulp on my wife’s lips as she struggled in agony.”
The writing throughout is precise and spare, with not a word wasted. There are no tricks. Han holds the reader in a vice grip, and this is before the narrative moves on into a third person as the second act begins.
The Vegetarian quickly settles into a dark, menacing brilliance that is similar to the work of the gifted Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa in its devastating study of psychological pain born of years of bullying.
This second act, "Mongolian Mask", is where Han consolidates her hold on the reader, and it becomes obvious exactly how effective Deborah Smith's quiet, underplayed translation is at evoking a mood of suppressed dread.
Yeong-hye, having already attempted to kill herself, has begun to drift. Her husband has left her. Her plight allows her brother-in-law, an artist of sorts, to draw closer to her. In a remarkable sequence of erotic despair, Yeong-hye, ever passive, is approaching madness and is partly accompanied towards this state by the artist as he paints flowers on her body.
The writing enters an even higher plane of near-oppressive excellence. If Han Kang were a film-maker her audience would feel incapable of leaving the cinema. The perspectives shift, as do our sympathies. The artist is both predator and victim. Yeong-hye is in freefall, in a state of pain that is beyond suffering.
By the third act it is the turn of Yeong-hye’s older sister, In-hye – a good wife, a good mother and a good sister – to provide the only support left for Yeong-hye. It is she alone who visits the increasingly catatonic woman in a psychiatric facility and attempts to make sense of the horror.
As she watches her sister dwindle, withdrawing into a strange inner world, she recalls how, as “the eldest daughter, In-hye had been the one who took over from their exhausted mother and made a broth for her father to wash the liquor down . . . Only Yeong-hye . . . became difficult to read . . . So difficult that there were times when she seemed like a total stranger.”
Han’s deliberate prose channels into the heart of the helplessness of trying to help when the afflicted has no interest in being helped. Kindly In-hye is a heartbreaking study of the helpless carer.
The Vegetarian is more than a cautionary tale about the brutal treatment of women: it is a meditation on suffering and grief. It is about escape and how a dreamer takes flight. Most of all, it is about the emptiness and rage of discovering there is nothing to be done when all hope and comfort fails.
For all the graphic, often choreographed description, Han Kang has mastered eloquent restraint in a work of savage beauty and unnerving physicality.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent