I received this book for free from First to Read in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
Published by Crown/Archetype on February 2nd 2016
Genres: Cultural Heritage, Fiction, Literary, Psychological
Source: First to Read
Challenging, surreal, character-driven novel with dark psychological themes and powerful imagery. In this three-part story, the author explores the ripple effect of an act of rebellion in an authoritarian environment through the conflicts in a single family. Deeply unsettling. At times, it felt like a horror novel rooted in a dream-like reality. Translated into English from the original Korean. I received this book from Penguin Random House in exchange for an honest review. This title will be released on February 2, 2016.
Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny, and though the physical remnants were excreted, their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.
Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life, until one day she throws out all the animal products in the kitchen and declares herself a vegetarian. She offers little explanation for her change in eating habits, except that she had a haunting dream. A simple act becomes an extraordinary act of rebellion in a culture where conformity is expected and admired. Gentle scolding turns into violence, as her family attempts to impose their will on Yeong-hye. She refuses to abdicate her newly found bodily autonomy, much to the annoyance of those around her. What follows is a descent into madness and a complete loss of self, while the family ties completely disintegrate.
Time was a wave, almost cruel in its relentlessness as it whisked her life downstream, a life which she had to constantly strain to keep from breaking apart.
The book is short in length (192 pages) and is a quick read, but the subject matter is extremely heavy. I was glad for the short length because it is difficult to read along as Yeong-hye endures invasive transgressions against her body, View Spoiler »even when there is very little physical body left. « Hide Spoiler The book touches on many issues that will be sensitive for some readers (vague keywords follow): View Spoiler »marital rape, child abuse, eating disorders, animal abuse, and mental illness. « Hide Spoiler
Life is such a strange thing, she thinks, once she has stopped laughing. Even after certain things have happened to them, no matter how awful the experience, people still go on eating and drinking, going to the toilet and washing themselves – living, in other words. And sometimes they even laugh out loud. And they probably have these same thoughts, too, and when they do it must make them cheerlessly recall all the sadness they’d briefly managed to forget.
The central character, Yeong-hye, is shown primarily through the eyes of her family, but there are some italicized sections that give insight into her thoughts. There are three acts from three points of view: her husband, her brother-in-law and her sister (In-hye). View Spoiler »The men in her life view Yeong-hye as an object who is supposed to play a specific role. Her father is an authoritarian who uses violence to maintain order. Her repressed husband sees her as a submissive wife with no discernible personality or interests outside of him. (“And so it was only natural that I would marry the most run-of-the-mill woman in the world. As for women who were pretty, intelligent, strikingly sensual, the daughters of rich families – they would only ever have served to disrupt my carefully ordered existence.”) Her brother-in-law develops a creepy sexual obsession with her and sees her as a blank canvas on which to project his sexual desires. (“Her calm acceptance of all these things made her seem to him something sacred. Whether human, animal or plant, she could not be called a ‘person’, but then she wasn’t exactly some feral creature either – more like a mysterious being with qualities of both.”)
“She was no longer able to cope with all that her sister reminded her of. She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.”
Yeong-hye’s actions have a huge ripple effect on her family, though much of that has to do with their rigid mindset and disproportionate reaction which pushes her further into isolation and madness. More lines are crossed as the novel continues and the family bonds almost completely disappear. It is clear why traditionalists maintain such a stronghold on rules and customs, as the rebellion shines a light on the possibilities and lights a spark in others. The saddest part is In-hye’s section. In-hye realizes she never took the time to understand her sister or truly listen to her. She reflects on how her own self-absorption and survival mechanisms have impacted her sister and she experiences guilt over the potential she had to prevent Yeong-hye’s complete break from reality. She begins to see herself in her sister and recognizes how tenuous her own grasp to reality is. How much relentless abuse can one person absorb before they snap? (“If her husband and Yeong-hye hadn’t smashed through all the boundaries, if everything hadn’t splintered apart, then perhaps she was the one who would have broken down, and if she’d let that happen, if she’d let go of the thread, she might never have found it again.”) « Hide Spoiler
Knowledge of Korean culture would be helpful and add another layer to the novel, but many of the themes are universal. At times, passages about the destruction of the body from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates came rushing back to me: “…racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth…You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.” and “To awaken [the oppressors] is to reveal that they are an empire of humans and, like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans.”
It’s your body, you can treat it however you please. The only area where you’re free to do just as you like. And even that doesn’t turn out how you wanted.
This is not a book I could recommend to everyone. I am certain that I do not have a full understanding of this book and I am still trying to process what I read. I didn’t enjoy it in the traditional sense, but it left me with a lot to think about. I recommend having a few palette-cleanser books on hand to read after this one!