Visiting her sister

Excerpt from The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Photo by Jeroen den Otter | Accessed on

This is an excerpt from the book The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith.

The receptionist greets her, recognizing her from previous visits. She closes her dripping umbrella and secures the tie around it, then sits down on a long wooden bench. While she waits for the doctor to come down from the consultation room, she turns to look at the zelkova tree which stands in the hospital’s front garden. The tree is clearly very old, easily four hundred years. On bright days it would spread its countless branches and let the sunlight scintillate its leaves, seemingly communicating something to her. Today, a day sodden and stupefied with rain, it is reticent, and keeps its thoughts unspoken. The old bark on its lower part is dark as a drenched evening, and the leaves tremble silently on the twigs as the raindrops batter down on them. And she sees her sister’s face, flickering like a ghostly after-image overlaid on the silent scene.

She closes her bloodshot eyes for a long time before opening them again. The tree fills her field of vision, still silent, keeping its own counsel. Still she cannot sleep. It’s been three months straight now, three months of getting by snatching pockets of sleep here and there, never more than an hour at any one time. Yeong-hye’s voice, the forest with the black rain falling, and her own face with the blood trickling from her eye, shiver the long night into fragments like potsherds.

Usually, when she has given up on trying to wring any more sleep out of the night, it is around three in the morning. She washes her face, brushes her teeth, prepares some side dishes, cleans and tidies every corner of the house, and still the clock goes as slow as ever, the shifting of the hands like the almost comically suspended movements of some ponderous dance. In the end she goes into his room and listens to some of the records he left behind, or puts her hand on her back and sins herself around the room as he once had, or curls up in the bathtub with her clothes on and even feels, for the first time, as though he mightn’t have been so incomprehensible after all. He probably just hadn’t had the energy to take his clothes off, simple as that. He simply can’t have had the energy to adjust the water temperature and take a shower. It struck her that this narrow, concave space was, oddly enough, cosier than anywhere else in the entire thirty-two-p’yong apartment.

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The Vegetarian – Summary

Here is the book summary from Goodreads:

Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism.

His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree.

Fraught, disturbing and beautiful, The Vegetarian is a novel about modern day South Korea, but also a novel about shame, desire and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.

Note, you may want to check trigger warnings before reading this book. You can find some details on the book’s trigger warnings here.

Copyright © 2016 by Han Kang.

Translated by: Deborah Smith

More details can be found on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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