Photograph: Photo by Horia Varlan, used under CC BY

South Korean author Han Kang's The Vegetarian, an exploration of a woman's quest to escape domestic banality by transforming herself into a tree, won the 2016 Man Booker International Prize for translated fiction on Monday.

The Man Booker judges awarded the 50,000-pound (72,000 dollars) prize to Han and her translator, Briton Debbie Smith, after praising the "evocative and suggestive" short work.

The book tells the story of a Korean woman who "awakens from uneasy dreams to find herself transformed into an enigma without a key," the judges said.

"Evocative and suggestive, The Vegetarian startles for the depths of its strangeness."

The English publishers promote the book as "a darkly allegorical, Kafka-esque tale of power, obsession, and one woman’s struggle to break free from the violence both without and within her."

Han, 45, teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts and has won several literary awards in South Korea for her fiction. The Vegetarian is her first novel published in English translation.

Smith, 28, only began learning Korean seven years ago after finishing an English literature degree and moving to South Korea.

Han's book beat five other shortlisted works, including secretive Italian author Elena Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child, which the judges called a "dense, compelling and artfully structured novel of love and adultery in the murkily complicated world of Naples of 40 years ago."

The shortlist also included A Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk's 40-year urban tale about a street vendor in Istanbul, and A General Theory of Oblivion by Angolan-born Jose Eduardo Agualusa, which uses black humour to tell the story of Angola's modern political history through the eyes of a reclusive woman.

The other two works were Yan Lianke's Four Books, set in Chinese labour camps in the 1950s, and A Whole Life by Austrian writer Robert Seethaler, which follows the life of a young man growing up in a remote Alpine valley.

The Man Booker International Prize began in 2005 as a biannual award for a foreign-language author whose works are widely available in English. Starting this year it changed to an annual prize for a single translated book.

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