Two Astonishingly Different Novels From Japan and Korea
March 11, 2023
Book covers


Unexpectedly, 2023 is turning out to be the year of reading translations. In the last couple of weeks I have devoured two very different novels by authors from Japan and Korea which left me in awe of the new voices and complex narratives that are arising from part of the world that I live in.

The Easy Life in Kamusari by Shion Miura

Translated into English by Juliet Winters Carpenter

The word that describes the experience of reading this book is ‘soothing’. I picked up this book in the fiction stack in the library while looking for The Great Passage, another book by Shion Miura. This small paperback with a pleasant green cover looked like a short read and I added it to my book pile. While I expected to finish reading it quickly, I was taken aback by the warm happy glow that overcame me as I got deeply engrossed in this simple story.

Set in a remote mountain village of Kamusari, the book describes the adventures of young Yuki Hirano who is forcibly sent there by his family right after high school. With no means of escape and a cell phone that doesn’t work, Yuki fantasizes and even manages to briefly flee his lonely life in a small village, so different from the big town life that he is accustomed to. Yet in the one year that he spends learning the techniques of forestry with a handful of hardworking but kind men of all ages, Yuki learns a new way of living that is in harmony with nature.

Yuki is taken into the home of the strong-bodied but philandering Yoki and his wife who live with grandma Shige and works with the team at Nakamura lumber. The reader is invited into the slow-paced life of the village folk who may appear to be simple but are wise about the ways of nature. As the seasons change and Yuki gets stronger and more adept at the techniques practiced by woodsmen, he learns to get along with the villagers and their unique customs that are completely attuned to the laws of nature and the guardian spirits of their neighborhood. 

The small village also provides an endearing love interest for Yuki but the larger than life figure is Mount Kamusari, with its spirits, legends and secrets. As the story unfolds, the author draws us in with detailed descriptions of the trees and shows us how humans can live within the cycle of seasons and the circle of life. 

My opinion: A delightful read, particularly for city slickers, to learn how slowing down and developing an abiding love for nature and reverence for the natural world can make life interesting and worthwhile.

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Translated into English by Deborah Smith

The word that best reflects the experience of reading this book is ‘disturbing’. Given my recent fascination with Korean drama that joyfully depicts a culture that is predominantly carnivorous, I was surprised to find a Korean novel with the word ‘vegetarian’ in the title and decided to find out more. 

Right from the beginning, it was clear that the book would not be an easy read. When Yeong-hye, the main character who is remarkable for her ordinariness, especially in the eyes of her husband, suddenly decides to become vegetarian and throws away all the meat and seafood in the house, she sets in motion a series of events that have irreversible and untoward consequences on her entire family.

Yeong-hye’s strange behavior extends to other aspects of her life. She seems to have trouble sleeping, loses weight and prefers to not wear a bra. While all of these may seem like a passing phase in a woman’s life and an evolution of her personal preferences, it becomes apparent that these do not sit well with her family. What begins as unpleasantness in her marital home with her husband’s helplessness soon leads to a life-threatening situation when Yeong-hye’s father forcefully tries to feed her a piece of meat.

Stunned by the turn of events, her siblings are unable to intervene and the family dynamic crashes after Yeong-hye’s hospitalization and subsequent divorce. The only person who is genuinely concerned is In-hye, the older sister who temporarily shelters her sister while simultaneously managing her cosmetics store, raising her son and supporting her artist husband who is distant and difficult to fathom.

The narrative slows at points and weaves itself into realms that seem to border on fantasy as the reader tries to make sense of how Yeong-hye’s solitary decision to become a vegetarian seems to have unshackled her from common social expectations and norms. But the family is torn apart by her actions that are once guileless and inexplicable. 

Narrated by different characters, Yeong-hye’s story illuminates the fragile and powerless nature of  a woman’s existence in a patriarchal society which scars everyone and leaves them unable to cope with their lives in a meaningful manner, launching a trail of unending devastation. As Yeong-hye fights to maintain her sovereignty over her body and decision to eat (or not), it becomes apparent how family, society and systems are complicit in erasing individual rights. The story doesn’t offer a clean denouement or easy solutions, it just leaves the reader gasping with an unnamed restlessness that is hard to swallow or fathom.

My opinion: A difficult book to grasp and digest, pick it up only if you are ready to face the terrible consequences that follow from a woman’s single decision to become vegetarian.

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