It happens in personal relationships and it happens with reading: A book simply does not hold my interest, float my boat, whatever metaphor you want to use. But if the writing is good I’m reader enough to admit: It’s Not You, It’s Me.
I’ve always been a fan of South Asian authors so approached these novels with high hopes. In both cases the writing was well done, but the characters left me cold or confused, not what I’m looking for in my fiction.
Shelter Published by Picador
Publication date: March 15th 2016
The plot of Shelter explodes from the initial pages—beginning with Kyung showing his house to a realtor because he is so far underwater on his mortgage that he must do a short sell. This financial drama pales when the realtor sees a naked woman staggering across the field behind the house and Kyung is horrified to realize it is his mother, Mae, who lives nearby. She is bloody and bruised and her garbled words lead him to believe that his father has, once again, hit her. But author Jung Yun doesn’t stop there. After getting her to safety Kyung goes to his parents’ house to confront his father. What he finds at the house is a scene of devastation—his father has been beaten as well, the home torn apart, and the housekeeper raped. All of this in the first chapter.
The rest of Shelter follows Kyung and his parents through the recovery process, which entails Mae and Jin moving in with them. Yun takes a risk in slowing down the novel after such a high impact beginning, but the foray into Kyung’s childhood and its psychological impact does provide insight into his interactions with both his parents and his own wife and child. Unfortunately, it also means that Kyung and his perspective are the focus of the novel. This is a problem for me because while I’m not a stickler for a ‘likable’ protagonist in my fiction, but they must be interesting and Kyung simply does not fit that bill. There is no doubt that his childhood was a difficult one, with his father abusing his mother and his mother turning her anger on him, but the fact that he cannot process this and that it is the crux of the novel, rather then his own inability to take responsibility for his own failures as a grown man. By the time he drunkenly airs his grievances about his parents at a dinner party and then wonders why no one feels bad for him
“Those people ruined me. Why don’t they understand—why don’t they act like they understand that?”
I’m over his pity party. I wanted more of the psychological aftermath of the current events in the family’s life or the past from someone other than Kyung. However, I seem to be alone int his assessment. Sarah at Sarah’s Book Shelves gave this 5 stars so if you’re on the fence check out her review here.
The Vegetarian Published by Hogarth
Publication date: February 2nd 2016
Because of meat. I ate too much meat. The lives of the animals I ate have all lodged there. Blood and flesh, all those butchered bodies are scattered in every nook and cranny…their lives still stick stubbornly to my insides.
The Vegetarian is three stories set in South Korea and linked together to provide a single narrative about two sisters. In the first we meet a petty, self-satisfied man, Mr. Cheong, who marries because it is the thing to do and who finds his wife “completely unremarkable in every way” until she announces she is no longer going to eat meat because of a dream she had. This is not problematic until Yeong-hye refuses to cook meat or be around it and her choice embarrasses him in front of others. His displeasure with her comes to a head when her vegetarianism surfaces at a family dinner and her father takes physical measures to make her eat meat, leading her to a complete psychological breakdown.
The second story is from the perspective of Yeong-Hye’s brother-in-law and his own dissatisfactions with life. He believes himself to be an artist and becomes fascinated with Yeong-hye, ultimately taking advantage of her in the name of his art, despite her emotionally fragile and unbalanced state. By the third story, even though it is about Yeong-hye’s older sister my patience has worn thin with the men of The Vegetarian and this may be the point of the novel. Sadly, we are still following Yeong-hye who is no longer able to live outside of hospitals and whose mental and physical health has degenerated to the point of being near-death.
Author Han Kang explores a myriad of issues both cultural and personal but like the trees Yeong-Hye believes she is becoming; The Vegetarian did not take root with me. There may have been important messages about mental health, but they were so subtle as to move right through me. Rather than compassion for Yeong-hye I felt only confusion.