The Vegetarian by Han Kang [book review]

The-Vegetarian-Han-Kang-2I stopped eating meat about 30 years ago as an experiment in healthy eating. Like Yeong-hye, the central character in The Vegetarian, I came in for many challenges from certain members of my family who couldn’t understand why I wanted to forsake what, for them, was a standard element of any meal. Fortunately I had a more cohesive answer than the one Yeong-hye gives her husband: “I had a dream.” she tells him when he discovers her sat on the floor of their kitchen in Seoul, surrounded by packets of meat she has thrown out of the freezer.

We learn, though her husband doesn’t, that her dream is grotesque, bloody and aggressive. And so is the reaction to her decision. Her husband frets about how this will look to his boss who invites them for dinner (the resulting occasion is a painful event). father, so incensed that she will not eat the delicacies prepared for a family lunch, tries to force a piece of sweet-and-sour pork into her mouth. In protest Yeong-hye stabs herself.

And yet who would have imagined this of a woman whose nature until then had been so docile and insignificant; the very reason her husband chose her for his bride was that she was “completely unremarkable in every way”. And yet here she is refusing to wear a bra, defying Korean cultural expectations by putting her own needs above those of family and husband,  and to eat only plants even though she is clearly starving herself. Only her brother in law, an unsuccessful video artist, finds her attractive. Unfortunately he’s not interested in her as such, only in Yeong-hye as a body, a canvas upon which he can paint giant flowers and plants. She becomes the object of his sexually-charged obsession that transforms her body into a “huge, abstracted plant.”

The Vegetarian is told in three acts which have distinctive differences in language from measured prose to almost hallucinatory description and to fragmented internal monologues where we get to learn what is going on in Yeong-hye’s mind.

Can only trust my breasts now. I like my breasts; nothing can be killed by them. Hand, foot, tongue, gaze, all weapons from which nothing is safe. But not my breasts. With my round breasts, I’m okay. Still okay. So why do they keep on shrinking? Not even round anymore. Why? Why am I changing like this? Why are my edges all sharpening–what am I going to gouge

The first act, narrated by her husband interposed by Yeong-hye’s dreams, deals with her decision and her family’s reaction;  the second is narrated by her brother-in-law and the third by her sister In-hye; the only member of the family who seems genuinely to care for Yeon-hye. She maintains contact when all others abandon the woman, unable to deal with her increasingly bizarre actions. But In-hye’s patience is tested severely when she visits her sister to learn she believes she is a tree, taking sustenance only from the soil, violently refusing attempts to force feed her when placed in a mental institution.

“Look, sister, I’m doing a handstand; leaves are growing out of my body, roots are sprouting out of my hands…they delve down into the earth. Endlessly, endlessly…yes, I spread my legs because I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch; I spread them wide…”

This is a portrait of disintegration. Yeong-hye’s rebellion causes her mental faculties to collapse and lead to the destruction of two families. It’s also a quite unflinching portrait about the clash between personal desire and conformity to expectations of behaviour in a society that denies such desires. Repeatedly we’re shown the clash between desire and denial in a way that asks disturbing questions about the nature of personal choice and ownership of one’s body in Korean society.

For a short novel, this is a startling piece of work. It’s disturbing in its portrayal of mental collapse, provocative in its portrayal of rebellion against conformity and unstinting with its descriptions of bleeding, vomiting, and manic behaviour. This is not a novel you can say you ‘enjoy’ or ‘like’ but it’s certainly one that you will not forget.

Footnotes

About the book: The Vegetarian by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith was published in 2015. It was considered ‘very extreme and bizarre’ in Korea on first publication but has since been translated into more than 20 languages. The Vegetarian won the International Man Booker Prize in 2016. Han Kang has gone on record that the inspiration for the book, initially published as three novellas, was a line by a modernist poet Yi Sang: ‘I believe that humans should be plants.’ which obsessed her while she was at university. Further insights on the book are in an interview for the White Review. 

About the author: Han Kang comes from a literary family in Korea, her father is a novelist and her brother a writer. She studied Korean literature at Yonsei University, South Korea.  She is the winner of several awards including the Yi Sang Literary Prize (2005), Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. Since 2013 she has been teaching creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. 2016 saw the publication in translation of Human Acts which begins with the massacre of students in South Korea in 1980.  If you don’t know her work, you can get a taste with the short story Fruit of My Woman on the Granta website 

Why I read this book: I bought The Vegetarian as a way of  making up for my large deficiency of knowledge of writers from Asia. It’s the first book I’ve read from my 20booksof summerproject for 2017.

About BookerTalk

What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

Posted on June 16, 2017, in #20books of summer, Book Reviews, Booker Prize, Korea and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 38 Comments.

  1. Ma’am I like your post and your spirit. God bless you. ❤ I can’t tell you when someone takes pledge to not to eat non-veg. I’m proud of you.💖 Can you check my blog too for Veg. Recipes. https://foodfondweb.wordpress.com 😀 😃
    Thank you

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  2. yes, quite powerful. so glad it won a major translation award

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Now my head is spinning. If every human should be a plant, why would she eat other plants? It seems like she would simply starve to death. Your review DID say that she is starving, but I thought perhaps you meant she wasn’t eating enough or correctly as a vegetarian to sustain her health. Is she not eating at all by the end of the book?

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    • She does begin by eating plants but by the time we get to the final section of the book she is refusing all food. In her mind she is a tree, and trees get their sustenance from the earth so what she believes she needs to do is a handstand so her arms become the roots and she can take in the nutrients etc that way. I won’t ask if that makes sense because clearly she is not thinking straight at this point

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  4. I found ‘The Vegetarian’ literally breath-taking when I read it. I think it may be one of the most viscerally powerful novel I’ve ever read, consistently unexpected, shocking and moving. Your description of ‘startling’ captures my response perfectly.

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  5. I definitely agree with your final sentence! Fabulous review. Do you plan on reading Human Acts? It too is brutal and unforgettable but in different ways and for different reasons.

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  6. I couldn’t help but think of some of Yoko Ogawa’s more unsettling fiction as I was reading your review. Have you read any of her work?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The only thing I’ve read by her is the Professor and the Housekeeper (not sure if I got the exact right title there) which was good but wouldnt be unsettling. So clearly Ogawa has some darker material to offer me….

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I loved this book. So much that I went out and bought Human Acts as soon as it came out in hardcover. It’s very good, too, but The Vegetarian is better.

    I think you’re a bit too hard on the husband, as were many reviewers. Considering how strange the main character’s behavior is in the context of Korean society, I think he did much better than many men would have done in his shoes. I’m not sure anyone could have done enough for her.

    I also still think we’re not supposed tor read this book as the story of a particular woman. I’m convinced that if I knew enough about Korean society, I would be able to crack the code in The Vegetarian, figure out what it’s really about.

    If you want more about modern Korea, I highly recommend Please Look After Mom by Shin Kyung-sook. It deals with similar themes about women in modern Korea, and has a similar narrative structure. It’s more accessible, overall, though. And it’s a wonderful, powerful story, just as good as The Vegetarian.

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    • Thanks James, I have indeed read Please Look After Mom which I found insightful about some aspects of Korean society. It was recommended by a friend in Korea.
      As for The Vegetarian, I’d agree with your thinking that this is about Korean society rather than an individual. My knowledge of that society isn’t very deep but I sense it’s rather hierarchical (the influence of the Japanese control possibly) and respectful of elders. Women are still expected to marry when young and though they are encouraged to work it’s still expected they have children and look after them. Career women are not that common. So the woman in this story is very much going against the norm – and yes her husband struggles because he too has been brought up with those beliefs.

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  8. I didn’t realise this was quite so bizarre from other people’s reviews, and unsettling – so I won’t be looking out for it and thank you for saving me from it!

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  9. I read this last year and it has certainly stuck with me. She really conveys a lot in such a short novel, and I thought she perfectly captured how heartbreaking it can be to fruitlessly try to help someone who is hurting themselves.

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    • That final section where her sister visits her in hospital was painful wasn’t it – she wanted so desperately to help but had no means to do so since the only thing that would make her sister happy would be to become a tree

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I have been dithering for months as to whether I should buy the book, and having read your excellent review, have decided to give it a miss. It sounds powerful and disturbing, and recently I’ve read a number of heavyweight books, and I need a break! Thanks for the review.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Brilliant review of a disturbing yet brilliant novel.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. One of my favorite books from last year. There is a very interesting korean screen adaptation:

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  13. Reblogged this on Don Massenzio's Blog and commented:
    Check out the book, The Vegetarian, by Han Kang, as featured on the Booker Talk blog

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  14. Powerful review, Karen. I’ve avoided this because of all the hype but perhaps I should try it.

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    • Well usually hyped books are ones I ignore too but the concept was just so strange I had to find out what the fuss was about. Maybe you can get a copy from the library and test it out? It’s not comfortable reading by any stretch of the imagination and I expect there are some readers who thoroughly disliked it. But then a mark of a good book sometimes is that it provokes strong reactions and this one certainly does.

      Liked by 2 people

  15. I won’t forget this book because of its bizarre concept and I could relate to the main character; I used to be vegetarian for two years. However, I found it rough and dry. Perhaps, the problem lies in its English translation.By the way, it has a movie adaptation.:)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m having difficulty seeing how this would work as a film since so much of the story is psychological. The translation I thought was excellent – sorry you didn’t relate to the book but I can understand its not everyone’s cup of tea

      Liked by 1 person

  16. Excellent review. I read a sample chapter of this one and it immediately went on my TBR list – the writing was powerful and such an unusual concept.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The writing is powerful indeed, very direct at times and then mysterious at others so you have to piece it together. I still have images in my mind of an emaciated woman doing handstands in the mistaken belief she is a tree whose limbs need sustenance from the soil

      Liked by 2 people

  17. Great commentary. I read The Vegetarian last year and read it twice because it was so intense. Her more recently translated book, Human Acts, also told what is kind of a commonplace story in a startling way. Have you read it?

    Liked by 2 people

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