Book Club Slut: The Vegetarian

Moving to a new city (country! continent!) means you leave everything behind and have to begin again. It’s not just the the places and spaces that are new, but new people, routines, habits, traditions.

And new book clubs.

It’s no secret that I love books clubs – I am a self confessed book club slut. Thanks to the internet I’ve been able to transcend location and continue to be a part of my virtual bookish groups, but there’s just something so great about sitting down (wine in hand) and talking about books with like minded people.

In New Zealand I had two excellent book clubs, one of literary artsy types (like myself) and the other of the greatest geeky scientists around. One was a huge comfort and more often than not we’d all sit and gush about that one book we all love (most of The Secret History), and the other introduced me to new books and challenged my ways of thinking.

Upon arriving in Cambridge one of my first tasks was to find a book club – I found two. And for the first we read Han Kang’s The Vegetarian. 

Biking through the dark cold evening, I hurriedly  locked my bike up and crossed the slick cobbled street. Ducking through the Porter’s Lodge I smiled cheerily to the Porter on duty, and unsurprisingly only got a curt nod in response. Crossed the court, up the stairs and through the warren into a room of readers.

Once introductions were made and food picked over we folded ourselves into couches and armchairs and begun.

One thing is certain: The Vegetarian disturbed us all.

Han Kang’s novel is the tale of Yeong-hye who, in response to a dream, renounces the consumption of meat. Actually, of all animal products. Told in three parts through the eyes of her husband, her brother-in-law, and finally her sister.

The discussion ranged from mental heath to privilege to love to rape to food to culture to presumptions. I read the book in a morning and was fucked up for the rest of the day.

We talked of mental health (with a tangential discussion about our presumptions of Yeong-hye’s mental illness) and how it seems that her family don’t understand. But if we were in that situation, would we truly understand? And culture – the South Korean coldness that infiltrates the pages – but as eleven privileged white readers, we can only empathise and attempt to comprehend the tensions between desires that are fed and desires that are denied. As beautiful and visceral as this book was, it was almost unintelligible.

I felt so far removed from the text, but I’m beginning to see that this is by my own hand – my unwillingness to engage with the abuse and brutality that the novel presents. Moments of my life seem to be defined by what I’m reading. I think and write in the voice of the author; dress like the characters; see the world through the words. So when I’m reading a book that is brutal and stark I hold it at arms length – wary of what it will do to me. The Vegetarian was one of these books.

figs

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