The Vegetarian: Han Kang

★★★

If Gloriana unsettled me with its profuse exuberance, Han Kang’s Booker prizewinning 2015 novel takes the opposite tack. This is a book in which everything has been stifled and pressed down into aching silence. Its protagonist, a young woman named Yeong-hye, is trapped in an unhappy marriage with a self-centred, indifferent and arrogant husband who kicks off the book by informing us that she is ‘passive’, has ‘neither freshness nor charm’ and that he’s always thought her ‘unremarkable in every way’. For years, Yeong-hye has ministered to her husband’s needs quietly and efficiently; but things are about to change. One night, an alarming dream prompts Yeong-hye to make an announcement. She is becoming a vegetarian. It’s a step which leads to chaos within her family and scandal outside it, as Yeong-hye’s lifestyle choice becomes caught up in the much broader question of women’s self-determination. Ironic, compassionate and brutal by turns, this is an uncompromising book: one that isn’t always easy to read, but which shines a fierce light on the injustices of a heavily patriarchal society.

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Pachinko: Min Jin Lee

★★★★

One of my plans for this year is to read books that take me beyond my comfort zone of European history and settings, whether that’s fiction based in other parts of the world, fantasy influenced by other cultures, or travel books and memoirs. I’m especially keen to learn more about Asia, thanks to my recent travels. Pachinko, which came up for review just before Christmas, is a good place to start. An ambitious historical novel, embracing almost the entire 20th century, it follows five generations of a hard-working Korean family and their efforts to earn security in their adopted country of Japan.

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