The Vegetarian – Han Kang

Desperately beautiful and sad in equal part, The Vegetarian is a short and shocking meditation on what it is to suffer, what happens when you challenge convention and ultimately what it is to be human.

It tells the story of a woman who becomes vegetarian and, in part as a consequence of her choice of diet being rejected by her family and, in part because of a deep, destructive melancholy, gradually decides to eschew conventions like clothes and eating, in the end almost dying, in order to become plant-like.

The story is told in third person from three perspectives in the book’s three chapters: the woman’s husband, a conventional man who discards her once her behaviour becomes too extreme; her brother in law, a strange film maker who is obsessed with her and uses her madness to take advantage; and her sister who continues to care and worry for her when everyone else has gone.

We learn through the sister’s story  – and in a shocking earlier scene in which he hits her and forced her to eat meat at a family meal – that their father was abusive, with the woman taking the brunt of it, helping to explain the suppression of her personality up to the point of becoming vegetarian. But we also find the sister experiencing despair too, and reflecting that if she didn’t have a son and her sister to care for, perhaps she might let herself detach from the world too.

All this is written in a direct yet beautiful style – incredible, given this is a translation from Korean.

In this remarkable novel Han Kang channels the ideas of existentialism, of Deleuze, of Becket, successfully conveying the sense that humanity is not essential or absolute but tied down by conventions which can easily be loosened, revealing other ways of being that are both mad and natural at the same time.

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Number 11 – Jonathan Coe

Through the separate and overlapping stories of childhood friends Rachel and Alison, Number 11 covers everything from the right wing press, wealth inequality, food banks and the bedroom tax to I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. 

With childhood memories of a summer in Beverley, Alison and her Mum Val struggling in Birmingham, Rachel becoming a live in nanny for London’s super rich, the pair losing touch after miscommunication on social media, and Alison ending up in prison, among much much else, the novel covers a lot of ground.

There are some wonderful ideas in here too. When Val appears on I’m a Celebrity all the good things she does are excluded from the show making her appear mean and malicious and, my favourite, the Maverick policeman who approaches any crime by first trying to understand the political and cultural context in which its occurs.

Number 11 is, needless to say, a contemporary state of the nation novel with a strong left wing political undertone to it, which was very occasionally a bit much – a kind of knowingness or cynicism about modern life that took away from the story – but actually this is a fine book. Funny, gripping, well written. John Lanchester’s Capital is a similar sort of novel, but Coe’s characters are fuller, more nuanced and although the situations they find themselves in are a bit cliched, the characters themselves are deeper and carefully drawn.

The end of the world running club – Adrian J WalkerĀ 

Both the concept and the execution of this book work – it begins when thousands of asteroids hit the earth, effectively destroying the infrastructure of human civilisation and killing nearly all the inhabitants of the UK and, though we don’t know for sure, probably the world. Ed is a half hearted father and husband whose family, after some dramatic scenes, is rescued shortly after the disaster. Being separated from them is a revelation for Ed, who suddenly realised that he may miss little else of civilisation, but his family is vital. The story follows his battle to get from Edinburgh to Falmouth on foot in 30 days before a ship leaves with his family and he loses them for good.

At its core this a page turner thriller. Ed, and his band of companions that he travels with (neanderthal Bryce, posh Richard, old Harvey and female Grimes) are thrown from one horrific situation to another – destroyed motorways, gun-toting aristocrats, a Manchester run by murderous gang, an obliterated Birmingham, and much else besides. The surprises keep on coming.

And at the same time there are some powerful themes running through it. There’s a strong tension, in particular, between the nuclear family being the ultimate value – Ed is absolutely fixated on finding his family because now, when he can see clearly, it’s all that matters – and the importance of wider solidarity, which we see through the close and mutually sacrificing nature of the group travelling to Falmouth together.

And what comes out through this is the relevance of Zizek’s psychoanalytic maxim: ‘we don’t want what we really desire.’ What Ed says he wants is his family, but what he appears to revel in is the finding of his family – the challenge, the pursuit – which is ultimately about him, internally, becoming something else and not about his family at all. When you get to the book’s finale, without giving anything away, you can’t help but wonder whether actually finding his family – as opposed to searching for them – was what he really wanted.

Mr Majestik – Elmore Leonard

It’s surprising, but there’s no one else quite like Elmore Leonard. His stories are gripping, his style pared down and his characters likeable and mean in equal measure. If his novels had a soundtrack I’d guess Curtis Mayfield, probably.

Mr Majestik is classic Leonard – a focused tale of crime, injustice and comeuppance.

Majestik is a hard working melon farmer who is visited by Kopas, a local small time crook. They face off and Majestik is mistakenly jailed. In jail he meets crime boss Renda organises an escape that involves Majestik who takes advantage of the situation, tricking Renda and turning him into an enemy intent on killing Majestik.

Renda keeps coming for him through the book but all Majestik wants to do is harvest his melons before they go bad.

It’s an implausible story – Renda gets too obsessed, while Majestik and his girlfriend Nancy are too good to be true – but nevertheless it’s a fantastically entertaining read, like reading a Tarantino film.