The Vegetarian by Han Kang
Published by Hogarth on February 2, 2016
Genres: [Adult] Contemporary, Literary Fiction
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.