‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

Fiction – paperback; Portobello Books; 183 pages; 2015. Translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith.

Quite frankly, Han Kang’s debut novel, The Vegetarian — which I read for Women in Translation Month is a bonkers story.

The premise goes something like this: a married woman becomes a vegetarian in meat-loving South Korea after she keeps having a freakish dream involving lots of blood. Her family reacts angrily to her decision. At a dinner party, her father tries to ram a piece of meat down her throat. She responds by picking up a fruit knife and slashing her wrist. She goes to the hospital. Later, when she’s discharged, her marriage begins to fall apart. Meanwhile, her brother-in-law, an unsuccessful video artist, develops an unhealthy interest in her body, which is slowly wasting away, and paints flowers all over her naked form. They have sex, get caught by her sister, and then she ends up in a psychiatric ward, where she’s diagnosed with schizophrenia and anorexia, before admitting she really just wants to morph into a tree.

Yes, I told you it was bonkers.

An unsettling metamorphosis

Structured in three parts, it follows Yeong-hye’s metamorphosis from dutiful wife (her husband is arrogant, sexist and sexually abusive) to subversive vegetarian in pursuit of a more “plant-like” existence. We never hear from her directly, because her tale is told from the perspectives of those closest to her: her husband (in part one), her brother-in-law (part two) and her sister (part three).

As the narrative inches forward it becomes increasingly more unsettling and unhinged. Part one is particularly confronting (Yeong-hye’s husband rapes her and treats her abysmally), while part two borders on the pornographic. Part three is a bit more even-keeled, but even so, there are vivid descriptions of unpleasant experiences and medical procedures in a psychiatric facility that are unnerving.

And all this is rendered in cool, detached prose, with an occasional nod to poetic lyricism.

Critically acclaimed

When The Vegetarian was published in 2015 it was greeted with much enthusiastic praise and it won the International Man Booker Prize the following year, but at the risk of sounding churlish, I don’t quite understand the fuss.

It’s certainly original and even though it’s from South Korea, it has that languid, haunting quality that I normally associate with the best fiction from Japan. Similarly, it addresses themes of alienation, misogyny and a refusal to conform to societal conventions, but I found it difficult to engage with any of the characters and the storyline just didn’t hold my interest. Every time I put this book down, I really did not want to pick it up again.

And while I understand the book is saying a lot about the rigid constrictions of South Korean society, about sexual frustration and desire, and the ways in which the female body is used and abused, The Vegetarian — for all its intelligence, ideas and confrontation of taboos — really wasn’t for me.

Kate from Booksaremyfavouriteandbest didn’t much like it either.

This is my 8th book for #20BooksOfSummer; and my 27th for #TBR40. It has been in my TBR since 2015, having received it unsolicited from the publisher for potential review prior to its official release.

31 thoughts on “‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

  1. I think readers will get far more from your review than mine! 😀

    I found it all strangely repulsive… kind of icky. Which is not a way I’d describe many books (particularly as I have a strong stomach). Like you, I appreciated the major themes of he book but the detachment in the writing made me detach from the story.

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    • Yes, it is strangely repulsive… even though I’ve read far raunchier things than this. I think the problem is that I couldn’t understand the point of the erotic stuff. I couldn’t understand how it contributed to the story. I kept wondering if I was missing out on something, that I didn’t know enough about South Korea. But anyway, it’s over and done with now. Excited to read something good now!

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  2. My sentiments exactly! Although I would go so far as to say I didn’t like it at all. But it was powerful as I can still remember it – but not in a good way!

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    • I think the premise is powerful…of a woman bucking convention…and I could see how that storyline would stay with you, but overall, yes, this is not a pleasant read.

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    • It is well written, or at least well translated, and it’s readable. I probably should have abandoned it but I wanted to finish it if only to tick another book off the #20BooksOfSummer challenge, which I’m woefully behind at…

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  3. Thank you for this review – I had to read it for my book club and did not understand what the fuss was all about! I found it deeply unsettling and horrible, and was very glad when it was over (and thankful that it was a short book!)

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  4. I’m with you, and it seems everyone else who’s commented – this book came from my niece with a big recommendation – I really didn’t like it, I couldn’t finish it … though wonder if it’s one of those books that speak to younger people (I’m in my 50’s). Anyway, thanks for your review, I feel validated.

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  5. Pingback: 20 books of summer — 2019 edition – Reading Matters

  6. Pingback: 20 books of summer 2019 recap – Reading Matters

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