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2. The Vegetarian + The Reader

Two book clubs. Two books. What did we read this month? Kate’s book club chose to read The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith, as it won the 2016 Booker International Prize.

Yeong-hye and her husband are ordinary people. He is an office worker with moderate ambitions and mild manners; she is an uninspired but dutiful wife. The acceptable flatline of their marriage is interrupted when Yeong-hye, seeking a more ‘plant-like’ existence, decides to become a vegetarian, prompted by grotesque recurring nightmares. In South Korea, where vegetarianism is almost unheard-of and societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision is a shocking act of subversion. Her passive rebellion manifests in ever more bizarre and frightening forms, leading her bland husband to self-justified acts of sexual sadism. His cruelties drive her towards attempted suicide and hospitalisation. She unknowingly captivates her sister’s husband, a video artist. She becomes the focus of his increasingly erotic and unhinged artworks, while spiralling further and further into her fantasies of abandoning her fleshly prison and becoming – impossibly, ecstatically – a tree.

Listen in to find out how it fared in book club debate.

We also look at international bestseller of yesteryear The Reader by Bernhard Schlink.

For 15-year-old Michael Berg, a chance meeting with an older woman leads to far more than he ever imagined. The woman in question is Hanna, and before long they embark on a passionate, clandestine love affair which leaves Michael both euphoric and confused. For Hanna is not all she seems. Years later, as a law student observing a trial in Germany, Michael is shocked to realize that the person in the dock is Hanna. The woman he had loved is a criminal. Much about her behaviour during the trial does not make sense. But then suddenly, and terribly, it does – Hanna is not only obliged to answer for a horrible crime, she is also desperately concealing an even deeper secret.

The book found fame in the author’s native Germany before making its way onto Oprah Winfrey’s book club list, and becoming an Oscar-winning film starring Ralph Fiennes and Kate Winslet. But twenty years on, does the book still hold its appeal? Laura’s book club plunged in.

Sue Nelson is an author, podcaster and award-winning science correspondent for the BBC. Her most recent book Wally Funk’s Race for Space tells the story of Wally Funk, the youngest of thirteen American female pilots in the Woman in Space programme. Her mission was to become one of the first women astronauts. But a combination of politics and prejudice meant the programme was abruptly cancelled. Neither Wally nor the other pilots ever made it into space. It’s an exhilarating read that we recommend for a book club book but in this episode we caught up with Sue for another reason, to talk to her about moving from London to a village where she didn’t know anybody and finding friends through her book club.

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