This is a very difficult book to review, to consider, to – for wont of a better analogy – digest.
It is also a book which I think will haunt and follow me. And, Heaven forfend, make me think. What an appalling concept!
The plot, such as it is, is devastatingly simple: Kim Yeong-hye is living a quiet, undemanding, unrewarding life in a fairly affluent area of Seoul until she decides to become vegetarian. That decision, simple and implacable, is also utterly inexplicable and has massive repercussions on the rest of Yeong-hye’s family: her husband, Mr. Cheong, her brother-in-law and her sister, In-Hye, in particular. The reason for her decision? That she had had a dream.
The decision, however, and Yeong-hye’s journey are far deeper than that: the vegetarianism marks the start of Yeong-hye’s gradual withdrawal from the world as she abandons sex, clothing, family and even speech. She is utterly inscrutible to the reader, which jars with the novel being almost eponymous and named for her: the first part of the novel is narrated by Mr. Cheong and the second and third parts are in the third-person but very much from the point of view of the brother-in-law and of In-Hye. Cheong-Hye speaks to us as little as she does to her family, becoming enigmatic and evocative as a character as a result. The closest we get to her voice are the italicised and stylised fragments of dreams which read like a vivid prose poetry: brutal and visceral and fractured.
Dreams of murder.
Murderer or murdered… hazy distinctions, boundaries wearing thin. Familiarity bleeds into strangeness, certainty becomes impossible. Only the violence is vivid enough to stick. A sound, the elasticity of the instant when the metal struck the victim’s head…. the shadow that crumpled and fell gleams cold in the darkness.
They come to me now more times than I can count. Dreams overlaid with dream, a palimpsest of horror. Violent acts perpetrated by night. A hazy feeling I can’t pin down…. but remembered as blood-chillingly definite.
The language – even in translation – is powerfully sensual: the foods presented to Cheong-Hye, the meats offered to tempt her from her vegetarianism and then ultimately forcefed to her by her abusive father, the peaches and fruits offered by her sister. All are lovingly described in the English translation. And, having won the Man Booker International Award, you can see why the prize is split between Han Kang and Deborah Smith, her translator. Some of the language is a little clumsy – especially the lack of names given and the heavy reliance on familial titles – but that struck me as a cultural feature rather than a linguistic lapse.
Or perhaps a stylistic choice to reflect Cheong-Hye’s distance from the family unit.
There is a yearning by all the point-of-view characters – except for Mr. Cheong – to be and to become something other than what they are, to escape in some ways. The supporting characters, characters like the mundane and unimaginative Mr Cheong, perceive Cheong-Hye to be perverse and contrary and needing discipline; or as mentally ill, to view her as suicidal and self-destructive. Which is understandable: she does slice her wrists open when her father tries to force-feed her. But I’m not sure I do. The need to alienate her, to classify and categorise her behaviour and to control it is such a superficial reaction. The word that comes to my mind is sublimation, the desire to be transformed, converted and different. And possibly better and free. The flowering of symbols in the novel – trees, flowers and birds – ah, the wonderful and beautiful sensuous descriptions of the flowers painted onto Cheong-Hye! – are all, for me, symbols of freedom and escape and innocence.
What this book prompts in me is, really, the ultimate question: what is real? What is reality? Are we limited to the mundane, traditional lives that Mr. Cheong has – how awful would that be? – or is there something else out there? Are Cheong-Hye’s dreams or her brother-in-law’s videos or her sister’s visions any less real or true than the world?
And, of course, as a novel, is the world of that novel any less real than the world in which I am tapping at my keyboard right now?
Yes, this book will be a haunting one which will continue to inhabit me. Much in the same way as many of the Man Booker prizes will.