The Vegetarian by Han Kang

71GD5hIAmOLThe Vegetarian by Han Kang
Published by Hogarth on February 2, 2016
Genres: [Adult] Contemporary, Literary Fiction
Pages: 188
Format: eARC
Source: Netgalley

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books a Million

2 Stars, Completed March 20, 2016

– to avoid SPOILERS read the bold only –

A long bamboo stick strung with great blood-red gashes of meat, blood still dripping down. Try to push past but the meat, there’s no end to the meat, and no exit. Blood in my mouth, blood-soaked clothes sucked to my skin. 

I put this review off for the longest because, honestly, when I finished the book I never wanted to revisit it again. Dark, disturbing, and depressing would be how I’d describe Han Kang’s The Vegetarian in three words.

The Vegetarian is a split narrative between three characters related to the protagonist, Yeong-hye: her husband, brother-in-law, and sister. Yeong-hye’s husband’s perspective is straightforward and the most fast paced; her brother-in-law’s is disturbing and beyond creepy; and her sister’s is the only one told in the present tense and rather confusing. However, all three are allegorical reflections that allow readers to gain further insight on Yeong-hye’s behavior after an unsettling series of dreams she has that causes her to go vegan-not vegetarian (the translated title is misleading)-and how her family and Korean society reacts toward her drastic, manic changes.

I picked The Vegetarian up because I wanted to read more books with mentally ill characters, and the fact that it took place in one of the most fascinating Asian countries, Korea (I’m addicted to Korean pop culture so…), only made me more intrigued. From the title, I assumed it would be a story about a woman adapting towards being a vegetarian and how her family and friends react toward this lifestyle change. Being a recent convert to vegetarianism for the past five years myself, I thought Yeong-hye would be a relatable and discerning character study.

As expected, The Vegetarian does essentially focus on a young Korean woman with a mental illness. It’s soon evident that her “normal” family members can be nonsensical and just as manic as she is. Her husband’s crass and insensitive manner made me loathe him immediately. Her brother-in-law’s obsession and lust for her was so, so creepy. Her sister’s desperate plea to have her old sister return in Yeong-hye was heartbreaking and believable. And the other characters that made brief appearances in the story weren’t much more supportive of her decision.

By the time the twelve magnificent courses were over, my wife had eaten nothing but salad and kimchi, and a little bit of quash porridge. …
When fruit was brought out for dessert my wife ate one small slice of apple and a single orange segment.

However, just because all the characters were disgusted and/or unsupportive of Yeong-hye didn’t make me conclude that that is how Korean society perceives vegetarianism. Yeong-hye is not a standard prototype for a healthy vegan. For that reason, it’s hard to consider this as an allegorical story about how Koreans may view vegetarians and vegans.

Readers know that Yeong-hye is mentally unstable. More than being obstinate about not eating meat she was refusing to eat anything much at all. Instead of viewing her family’s discouragement towards her diet because of veganism itself, I saw it as disapproval about her unhealthy lifestyle choice (she was getting noticeably thinner) and evidently changing personality (at some point she went topless and expressed other idiosyncrasies in the public). Don’t get me wrong, their approach was often times appalling and callous (especially the father’s), but in some respect I could also see their actions were caused by their concern for Yeong-hye’s wellbeing. So I didn’t interpret The Vegetarian as an accurate reflection on how Korean society would judge a vegetarian as other readers and reviewers had mentioned. Yeong-hye’s family’s averse reactions were probably towards her strange behavior during the time she became a vegan after the bloody and murderous dreams she saw and not because of the diet change.

Anyway, this novel was absolutely nothing like I’d expect it to be. And in some ways it was a disappointment. The Vegetarian was incredibly warped and dark. It wasn’t simply about a girl that becomes vegetarian. Like I said, there is some reflection on how Korean society views individuals like Yeong-hye-but, in my opinion, not because she was vegan but because of her manic behavior. This twisted story is certainly memorable for its bizarre, dream-like (or perhaps nightmarish is more correct) qualities. However, it weirded me out in a more unfavorable way. This short story possesses lyrical merits, but I just really didn’t like the story. The Vegetarian, it’s not you it’s me.


Quotes were taken from an uncorrected advance readers copy.

Thank you Hogarth and Netgalley for the opportunity to read and review The Vegetarian. Receiving this electronic review copy did not affect my reading experience or honest review in any way.

Summer’s Playlist:
The Day Before | Set Me Free
*the bold/underlined are must listens!

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34 thoughts on “The Vegetarian by Han Kang

    • Summer @ Xingsings says:

      So I didn’t even realize this won the International Man Booker Prize but between the 2015/2016 awardees A Little Life was much better, in my opinion. However, I know saying this to you will be futile since that one is like 700+ pages. 😄

      Like

  1. Carolyn says:

    I’m thinking of reading this one in June!! I’ve heard mixed reviews so I’m lowering my expectations but I’ve heard better things about her newest book, Human Acts. The synopsis for that one is really intriguing as well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Liam @ Hey Ashers! says:

    Hey, I’m a K-Pop junkie, too. High fives.

    But yeah, no. This book probably wouldn’t have appeared on my to-read list, even without your (thorough and excellent) review to warn me off it. I applaud your ability to finish it! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Summer @ Xingsings says:

      OH MY GOSH. No way! high fives back enthusiastically What form of Korean pop culture do you enjoy? Music? Dramas? (We need to talk about this, because I find that there are very few K-pop reader junkies.)

      Thanks, Liam! I think the only reason why I was able to finish was because it was so short. 😛

      Liked by 1 person

      • Liam @ Hey Ashers! says:

        Ahaha, I love both the music and the dramas. It’s all great.

        Favorite musicians/groups: BoA, f(x), EXO (both K and M), and SNSD. But there are so many great groups, and so many I haven’t listened to yet. My to-listen list is almost as long as my to-read list.

        Favorite dramas: To the Beautiful You, Twenty Again, Coffee Prince, The Prime Minister and I. Let’s not talk about my to-watch list; I’m so behind on it.

        How about you? 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • Summer @ Xingsings says:

          Oh my gosh, you’re such an SM stan, lol. 😄 But my ultimate bias group is EXO (I really love Lay (Yixing) hence Xing Sings). And f(x) is such a wonderful group, it’s pretty sad Sulli left though. Other groups I really love are Spica and Lunafly, both are greatly underrated though. And Beast and SHINee were the groups that got me into kpop back in 2011. However, I mainly listen to EXO. Have you heard? EXO’s coming back! T.T I am so, so excited. I already preordered their albums (K + M) lol. As for favorite dramas… I love a lot of historical ones so Sungkyunkwan Scandal, Dong Yi, Secret Garden, and It’s Okay, That’s Love are my all time favorites. I highly recommend them. 😀

          Liked by 1 person

          • Liam @ Hey Ashers! says:

            Aaaaah Lay is my favorite EXO member, too! High fives.

            Sulli’s departure really is sad–but I can 100% believe that she was mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted by the music industry. I don’t know that acting’s a less stressful career, but hopefully it works for her.

            Spica and Lunafly are now on my to-listen list. Any specific songs you’d recommend I check out first? 😀

            I was so excited to hear that Taemin was starting some solo stuff; he’s always been my favorite from SHINee (though I love Minho in To the Beautiful You).

            GIVE ME MORE EXO. 😀

            I watched the first few episodes of Sungkyunkwan Scandal, but I was kind of frustrated by how obviously a woman the heroine was. I was amazed and frustrated that no one realized she was a woman. That’s a really silly hang-up to have, isn’t it? I should give the show another try; I’ve heard so many good things about it.

            Secret Garden and It’s Okay, That’s Love are already on my to-watch list, but I’m always nervous that historical ones like Dong Yi will end in tragedy. Or be super long with Byzantine plots. Dies. I’ll have to add Dong Yi to my list, though!

            Thank you for the recommendations! 😀

            Liked by 1 person

            • Summer @ Xingsings says:

              There aren’t enough fans that can appreciate Lay, so learning that you’re a fellow fan makes me so happy. TT_TT

              And I feel the same way about most artists that decided to break away from the K-pop scene. Even after deciding on focusing on her acting career… she’s gotten a lot of backlash from Netizens about her Instagram being “too sexual.” Smh, why can’t people just support artists? -___-

              AND LIAM. I don’t understand how you love To the Beautiful You seeing that I sort of hated that drama? But that could be because I saw the Japanese (which was the original) and Taiwanese versions of that same drama…

              My favorite SHINee member is probably Key. Taemin’s dance skills though (I love his song Press Your Number; I was OBSESSED months ago). If you ever decide to delve into Korean variety/reality shows you would adore Hello Baby with SHINee. Minho makes a great “dad.”

              And haha, I totally can see what you mean with Sungkyunkwan Scandal. (But don’t you feel the same way about To the Beautiful You?? Sulli is pretty feminine!) I just loved it because it was one of the more lighthearted historical dramas (it wasn’t historically accurate all the time and there were moments of comedic relief).

              And you MUST watch Secret Garden and It’s Okay, That’s Love. Those are my all time favorites. And I don’t want to spoil anything about Dong Yi but your qualms about a truly tragic ending… you don’t need to worry about that! (I also like a Chinese drama called Bu Bu Jing Xin and that had a devastating ending and had too much “king/queen/concubine conflict.)

              As for my favorite songs by the groups I mentioned:

              Tonight – Spica
              You Don’t Love Me – Spica
              Lost Stars – Lunafly (Cover)
              I Won’t Let You Go – Lunafly (Cover)
              All of Me – Lunafly (Cover)

              To be honest, I like all of Lunafly’s songs but I do love, love a lot of their English covers. One of the members is British Korean. And their (both groups) vocals for live performances are phenomenal. But yeah, I’ll stop there so I don’t overwhelm you! 😀

              Liked by 1 person

              • Liam @ Hey Ashers! says:

                HOW ARE PEOPLE NOT MESMERIZED BY HIM. He’s a fantastic dancer; I seriously cannot take my eyes off him. I watch and rewatch and rewatch their music videos (and dance practice videos), and he’s really all I can look at. (Same with Taemin. I’m a sucker for a great dancer.)

                Ahaha, I have some problems with To the Beautiful You, don’t worry–but Hana-Kimi is one of my all-time favorite mangas, so I was predisposed to love To the Beautiful You even with its flaws (including how agonizingly obviously feminine Sulli is in it). Can you believe I haven’t seen either of the Japanese versions, nor the Chinese version? NEEDS THEM.

                Adding Hello Baby to my to-watch list. 😀

                Thanks for the links! I’ll be watching/listening to these instead of writing my next book review. Perfect use of my evening, if you ask me. 😀

                Liked by 1 person

                • Summer @ Xingsings says:

                  OMG. And you read manga, too? This is getting ridiculous; you may just be the fanboy friend I’ve tried searching for my entire life. T.T But I haven’t read Hana Kimi, the manga, but I really liked the Japanese drama (I found it to be the best of the three actually-it’s hilarious but really cheesy). And omg, Yixing is the best. By the way, Exo’s comeback with Monster and Lucky One is just omg. I can’t. My albums have shipped from Korea but they don’t arrive until a month. ): At this point, I don’t really care and may just buy the albums on iTunes, too, so I can listen to them right away. (Sacrificing book funds…) The things I do for Exo. 😀

                  Liked by 1 person

                  • Liam @ Hey Ashers! says:

                    FANBOY FRIEND HIGH-FIVE.

                    Okay, I’ll hunt down the Japanese drama if it’s the last thing I do. It is my destiny.

                    OH GOD EXO my heart feels like it’s overflowing, I just can’t even. My only complaint: I wish the Lucky One music video featured dancing–but hey, at least there’s the live performance up, so I can’t complain much. Wait, second complaint: I wasn’t there to be screaming my head off in the crowd. Life is so unfair.

                    I hope your albums arrive safely and quickly! A month is so long to wait. Cries for you.

                    Liked by 1 person

                    • Summer @ Xingsings says:

                      Same! I was pretty disappointed Lucky One had one of those weirdly confusing conceptual MVs SM is known to churn out, and the little dancing they did decide to have was of Kai dancing Monster’s choreo (while everyone was running for their lives, haha). And there goes Lay with his healing powers and flowers (making those girls heads going ka-boom). Everything, about that video made me laugh more than it should. 😂 But that’s okay.

                      AND I KNOW! I am so going to see Exo one day when they visit the States again. I couldn’t go see them when they were here in NY because Lay wasn’t going to be present (he had too much Chinese promotions going on). ):

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Liam @ Hey Ashers! says:

                      ALL OF THIS.

                      But Lay’s dancing, holy crap. Can I have his dance skills? Because I’m endlessly impressed by how much better he is than most (all?) of the other guys.

                      Holy crap, when you see them you have to tell me absolutely everything about it. (I’ll do the same for you, if they happen to come to Texas first.) And by god, Lay better be there.

                      Have you read Hello, I Love You by Katie Stout? I was ridiculously excited about it when I first heard the premise–but then all the infuriated reviews came pouring in, and I took it off my TBR list. I’m still bitter about it. I’d love some well-written K-pop love story to pretend I’m the main character of. 😀

                      Liked by 1 person

                    • Summer @ Xingsings says:

                      Actually I did read Hello, I Love You, and sort of hated it. I think I gave it two stars. The intention was good but the execution was so bleh. Also, it totally reminded me of Heartstrings, but not necessarily in a good, inspired way. :/ And the protagonist was so infuriating. It’s definitely a miss (especially to K-pop fans)! ):

                      Liked by 1 person

  3. Read Diverse Books says:

    Aww, it’s a shame you didn’t like it. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Yes, it is a very dark and weird book, but that doesn’t turn me off at all. I liked when books make me uncomfortable and unsettle me, for some reason…

    This book is definitely not meant to portray how Korean society views vegetarianism. The book wasn’t really so much about Yeong-hye’s vegetarianism than it was about her descent into madness, like you said. She just happened to adapt the lifestyle because of that strange dream of hers. Anyway, I thought this book was great!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Summer @ Xingsings says:

      I seem to be in the minority though. I’m glad you enjoyed it as much as you did, Naz! It’s really been a while since I’ve read my last translated work, but the writing was certainly evocative and intriguing. The story itself just wasn’t for me; it was a bit too creepy and somewhat gory (those dreams though) for me. >.<

      Like

  4. aentee @ read at midnight says:

    Sorry to hear that the story ultimately did not work for you, but I think I’ll still give it a go personally because I love the sound of the premise. I’ve also been seeing Han Kang’s Human Acts around lately and that looks disturbing and deliciously dark as well. I just enjoy reading about descents into insanity, it seems 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    • Summer @ Xingsings says:

      Haha, judging from other people’s opinions on this book, you don’t seem to be the only one that likes the more unsettling titles. It makes sense though, these are certainly more fresh compared to our usual YA reads. 😛 I hope you like it more than I did, Aentee! :3

      Like

  5. Claire 'Word by Word' says:

    I think the title is a bit of a red herring, I didn’t read it as a book about being vegetarian, it was more about a society dealing with people with mental health issues and the ignorance that exists in even being aware of it. I thought it was a fascinating read and Human Acts also excellent.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Summer @ Xingsings says:

      I think I just went into The Vegetarian not having that frame of mind. 😅 But you’re absolutely right, it certainly was an intriguing read in that respect. And I’m glad you enjoyed Human Acts. I do plan to read that one in the future. I haven’t checked yet, but I’m curious to see if HA has the same translator for The Vegetarian.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Claire 'Word by Word' says:

        Yes, it’s the same translator Deborah Smith, she did such a great job and what a fabulous prize to win, the Man Booker International, half the prize money goes to the translator so I am sure we are going to be seeing more translations of Han Kang’s work as a result!

        Liked by 1 person

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