Book Review: The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The VegetarianThe Vegetarian by Han Kang
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Publisher: Hogarth
Translator: Deborah Smith
Released in Korea in 2007
English translation released in 2015

Publisher’s Description:

A beautiful, unsettling novel about rebellion and taboo, violence and eroticism, and the twisting metamorphosis of a soul
Before the nightmares began, Yeong-hye and her husband lived an ordinary, controlled life. But the dreams—invasive images of blood and brutality—torture her, driving Yeong-hye to purge her mind and renounce eating meat altogether. It’s a small act of independence, but it interrupts her marriage and sets into motion an increasingly grotesque chain of events at home. As her husband, her brother-in-law and sister each fight to reassert their control, Yeong-hye obsessively defends the choice that’s become sacred to her. Soon their attempts turn desperate, subjecting first her mind, and then her body, to ever more intrusive and perverse violations, sending Yeong-hye spiraling into a dangerous, bizarre estrangement, not only from those closest to her, but also from herself.
Celebrated by critics around the world, The Vegetarian is 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.

Yeong-hye has a horrible dream. When she awakens, she finds that meat disgusts her and she can no longer eat it. The Vegetarian is divided into three parts, each offering a different person’s perspective on her decision and its effect on them.

The first part is told by her horrible husband, who cares only about the shame she is bringing upon him and her family with her choice. (Apparently, there are not many vegetarians in South Korea.) The second part is her relationship with her brother-in-law during the time when she is shifting from vegetarianism to not being interested in food at all. The last part is about her and her sister.

I had trouble understanding how Yeong-hye made the leap from the dream to becoming a vegetarian and then also why she grew to dislike food altogether. However, that didn’t impede my appreciation of the story much. I say appreciation rather than enjoyment because it’s hard to say that I enjoyed a book that is about a character who is depressed and hopeless.

The Vegetarian was my book club’s December selection. We found there was a wide range of opinions about the book and much to discuss. Most of us agreed that the book is an allegory…for something. There were varying opinions about what it was. Is it about humanity and its inherent violence? Is it about madness and how much autonomy a supposedly mad person should be granted over her own body? Is it a statement about how women are treated in Korea?

Most of us thought we liked the book but we didn’t love it. I would put myself in that camp. As a side note, this book is translated from Korean and at times the translation was a bit clunky. It would be interesting to read it in the original language and see if I felt the same way about it. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Korean. The author has said that she worked closely with the translator so presumably she approves of the translation.

The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016 and some people clearly love it. I will say my understanding of it deepened after discussing it with others. I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own but I did like it and I’m glad I read it.