South Korean author Han Kang has won the Man Booker International Prize for fiction with “The Vegetarian,” an unsettling novel in which a woman’s decision to stop eating meat has devastating consequences.
Han beat literary stars including elusive Italian author Elena Ferrante and Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk to the 50,000-pound ($72,000) prize, awarded at a ceremony in London on Monday.
Literary critic Boyd Tonkin, chair of the panel that chose the winner from 155 entries, said Han’s “compact, exquisite and disturbing” novel displayed an “uncanny blend of beauty and horror.”
The award is the international counterpart to Britain’s prestigious Booker Prize and is open to books published in any language that have been translated into English.
The prize money will be split evenly between Han and her 28-year-old translator, Deborah Smith, who only began learning Korean seven years ago.
Han, 45, is the first Korean writer to be nominated for the prize, which was founded in 2005.
“The Vegetarian” is the first of her books to be translated into English. It tells the story of Yeong-hye, a dutiful wife whose decision to forego meat uproots her whole existence.
Tonkin said Han’s “concise, unsettling and beautifully composed story traces an ordinary woman’s rejection of all the conventions and assumptions that bind her to her home, family and society.”
The prize – named after its sponsor, financial services firm Man Group PLC – was previously a career honor, but changed this year to recognize a single work of fiction.
The change comes amid signs that English-speaking readers are slowly becoming more receptive to translated literature. Research firm Nielsen Book says the British market for translated fiction almost doubled between 2001 and 2015 – but still accounts for just 1.5 percent of all fiction sales.
Han’s book beat five other finalists, including “The Story of the Lost Child” by pseudonymous Neapolitan writer Ferrante, and Pamuk’s Istanbul-set “A Strangeness in My Mind.”
The other contenders were Yan Lianke’s “The Four Books,” one of the few Chinese novels to tackle the Great Famine of the 1950s and ‘60s; Angolan revolution saga “A General Theory of Oblivion” by Jose Eduardo Agualusa; and Alpine story “A Whole Life” by Austria’s Robert Seethaler.