Title: The Vegetarian
Author: Han Kang
Translator: Deborah Smith
Published by: Hogarth
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Where I got the book: Public Library
I’d previously written about The Vegetarian in my Women in Translation post, but wanted to do a longer review. This review is an expanded version of the one found in my Women in Translation post.
Winner of the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, The Vegetarian is a twisted tale of family, desire, deceit, abuse and free will. Yeong-hye lived an ordinary life before the nightmare. Troubled and haunted by her dreams,she subsequently decides to renounce meat, a decision that shocks and scandalizes her family, as they struggle to understand her reasoning. Told in three sections, from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s husband, brother-in-law and sister, The Vegetarian is a disturbing and beautiful allegorical novel that tells a story about choice and obsession.
The Vegetarian was a twisted and disturbing read that didn’t end up where I thought it would. I started reading this immediately after finishing Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami and Yeong-hye’s nightmare lead me to believe that the book possibly contained bits of magic realism. I was mistaken though and this is firmly a contemporary novel of deceit, abuse, and the sudden destruction of a family. Due to Yeong-hye not being a narrator, the reader is left to muddle through her dream from other people’s perspectives. The dream then takes on a much more personal quality as Yeong-hye’s actions are explained as caused by mental health and the whole family starts to unravel.
I went in knowing that the book was told in three different perspectives but didn’t exactly know how it would shape the story. It’s incredibly interesting to read a book about personal choice and never once see the story from the perspective of the person who made the decision. Yeong-hye is only partially formed through out the book, each narrator obsessive over different parts of her. Her husband is upset his previously obedient wife has ruined their marriage, her brother-in-law sexually obsesses over her, and her sister is forced to reconcile the destruction of her family with Yeong-hye’s deteriorating mental health. Yeong-hye is what shapes the narrative of The Vegetarian but she’s never really allowed any agency in doing so.
Kang’s writing is beautifully lyrical, soft in a way that I often had to stop to breathe or reread certain passages again and again. Although the book was beautifully lyrical and dark, I felt that my experience reading it was a bit disappointing due to the hype and my own confusion about the book. I went in expecting dark literary magic realism and ended up reading something completely different. I ended up rating The Vegetarian 3 stars because I did enjoy it, but even months later after finishing it I’m still not sure what to think about it or how to process my feelings about the book. If I’d found this book just randomly at the library I probably would have really enjoyed it, but my own preconceived notions ended up spoiling the book. I’m still interested in reading more of Kang’s work and will hopefully find her book Human Acts much more accessible since it’s historical fiction.