The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Before the nightmare, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary life. But when splintering, blood-soaked images start haunting her thoughts, Yeong-hye decides to purge her mind and renounce eating meat. In a country where societal mores are strictly obeyed, Yeong-hye’s decision to embrace a more “plant-like” existence is a shocking act of subversion. And as her passive rebellion manifests in ever more extreme and frightening forms, scandal, abuse, and estrangement begin to send Yeong-hye spiraling deep into the spaces of her fantasy. In a complete metamorphosis of both mind and body, her now dangerous endeavor will take Yeong-hye—impossibly, ecstatically, tragically—far from her once-known self altogether.
A disturbing, yet beautifully composed narrative told in three parts, “The Vegetarian” is an allegorical novel about modern day South Korea, but also a story of obsession, choice, and our faltering attempts to understand others, from one imprisoned body to another.
Where to buy it: QBD the Bookshop, paperback $19.99
When can I get my hands on it: Now!
What can I expect: mental illness, obsession, family drama, overall strange vibes
This book is told in three parts and I felt very differently about each part so I’m going to review them individually.
The first part is told from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s husband and is written in first person past tense. This part details how Yeong-hye suddenly decides to stop eating meat after having a dream. I loved this part!! It was told so well and carried a weirdly captivating vibe throughout. I hated Yeong-hye’s husband but I felt like he made a great narrator. Yeong-hye’s story carried more intrigue when told from the perspective of her selfish husband. To me, this part seemed to be a reflection of mental illness. From emotional pain to overbearing obsession, Kang created a window into the mind of a woman who has separated herself from social norms. I think Kang really excelled in her writing in this part and was able to depict such a solid and multi-dimensional character. Credit should also be given to Deborah Smith, the translator of this book. A lot can be lost in translation but I think Smith translated the novel very elegantly.
This part is told in third person past tense and is told from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law. This threw me a little because after being so in love with Part 1 I now had to reacquaint myself with a new person who barely made an appearance in Part 1. I also don’t particular like it when authors change tenses throughout a novel. Anyway, this part was still very good in my opinion, although it lacked that little spark that Part 1 had. Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law is an artist and becomes obsessed with Yeong-hye when he discovers she has a Mongolian mark on her butt cheek. He envisions his next great piece of work solely around his obsession with Yeong-hye and her mark. For me, part 2 was just strange. Again, I felt like mental illness was a focal point here. It gave off a “… what is life all about….is it worth living….” kind of vibe. I felt like both Yeong-hye and her brother-in-law were detached from society in their own way. I enjoyed their interactions and while Kang does re-visit events from Part 1, I felt like I didn’t get much closure on the events of Part 1. Even so, I was still on board with this section and thoroughly enjoyed the weirdness of it.
This part is told from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s sister In-hye and is told in third person present tense (are you confused and annoyed yet?). This part was just shit. Let’s be serious here, Kang goes from a weird girl who won’t eat meat or wear a bra to an artist who wants people to have sex after painting flowers on their bodies and then we get In-hye………..
This was so boring and the worst way to end such an amazing book! I was so annoyed with Part 3. I don’t care about In-hye and how great she is at running a retail store. I work in retail so I know it’s really not very compelling or interesting. The only redeeming thing about the last third of this book was the glimpses of Yeong-hye’s progression into complete insanity. Her refusal to eat anything and her justification for it was the only thing that kept me going. Again in this section Kang revisits the events of Part 1 so it also felt repetitive and unnecessary. I was really disappointed with how this ended.
Overall, this is an amazing book, with the exception of the last third. I think the last third needed some editing and could have easily been cut down to half. I’m definitely going to read more of Kang’s work; I just hope all her novels don’t follow the same decreasing trend throughout. Also, Han Kang, please choose one tense and stick to it! Despite pretty much hating the last part, I really can’t give this book a bad rating because it is incredibly good and reflects the beauty of literature. Kang is a very talented author and with abysmal books like 50 shades of grey (sorry Sam!) The Vegetarian is a novel that deserves to be recognised as outstanding.
Final rating: 4/5